• Erin Hegarty
    OCT 04, 2021

    Aldermen rail on water officials for lack of diverse contracting, slow replacement of lead lines

    The Chicago Department of Water Management has so far only replaced 10 of the city's approximately 400,000 lead service lines, Comm. Andrea Cheng said during a budget hearing on Friday. [Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago]

    The share of contracts the city’s water department awarded to African American-owned companies in the past year has not met multiple aldermen’s expectations, they said Friday.  

    But Department of Water Management Comm. Andrea Cheng offered that the city’s decades-long task of replacing lead service lines throughout the city "is a tremendous opportunity" for workforce development in diverse contracting and pledged her department will "continue to expand our opportunities for contractor diversity." 

    Contracting diversity and the slow pace at which the city is replacing its lead service lines both took center stage during the water department’s nearly three-hour budget hearing on Friday. The department has so far only replaced 10 of the city’s approximately 10,000 lead lines. 

    Last week marked Cheng’s first budget hearing at the helm of the water department after she replaced Comm. Randy Conner, who retired at the end of last year. 

    Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s budget proposal grows the water department’s full-time equivalent employee count by 38 positions — all for the lead service replacement program — notching it up to a 1,362-position department with a more than $331.2 million spending plan for 2022. 

    Cheng told aldermen that slightly more than 33 percent of the contracts her department has awarded so far this year went to minority- or women-owned firms. Broken down by ethnicity, 7.2 percent of contracts went to African American-owned firms, 15.9 percent to Hispanic-owned firms, 7.6 to Asian American firms and 2.3 percent to women-owned firms.  

    Ald. Walter Burnett (27) called the share of African American contracts “disturbing.” 

    “That’s unacceptable,” he said before suggesting Cheng encourage white contractors to form a “joint venture” with smaller minority contractors. 

    Burnett noted he has a “diverse” ward — it stretches from the Near North Side and Fulton Market west to Garfield Park — “but in particular in the Black area of my ward in the heart of the West Side, they see all these people working and they don’t look like them. It’s not a good thing.” 

    Burnett added that at the “end of the day, it hits the aldermen.” 

    Ald. Leslie Hairston (5) piled on, saying that during her two decades as an alderman "the numbers don't get better" on contracts awarded to African Americans. 

    "The time has never come, particularly with this department, and it's not only frustrating but it's insulting,” Hairston said. 

    Cheng told aldermen she has been “really trying to work on making sure people know about the opportunities we have coming up, especially around lead because it is going to be a large dollar value.” 

    But the city is also lagging far behind in replacing its toxic lead service pipes. Cheng told aldermen on Friday the city has replaced 10 lead lines — .000025 percent — under an “equity” program for the line replacements.  

    That number is a slight uptick from the three lead lines the Tribune reported the city had removed by the beginning of September. Mayor Lori Lightfoot had planned to have 650 lead lines replaced this year during the first phase of replacement. Cheng touted the 10 lead pipelines that have been replaced so far under the equity replacement program, saying the number "doesn’t sound like much, but when you think about the fact that we've never done it before, it's actually quite impressive."  

    Cheng said city crews are learning as they go and getting better at replacing the water lines. Residents also have the opportunity to replace lead lines on their own and can have permit fees waived if they qualify.  

    Water department officials are “about to award the contract to do the bulk of [the pipe replacements under the equity program],” Cheng said. 

    The water department expects to have all 400,000 lead service lines replaced in the next 50 years, Cheng told Ald. Daniel La Spata (1).  

    “It is actually a very accelerated pace compared to other cities,” Cheng said. “We just have such a large number, but we'll be working with [Environmental Protection Agency] as well to establish what those goals are.” 

    La Spata broached concerns that replacing the lead service lines could take a bite out of the city’s tree canopy as trees are removed to make way for the pipe replacements. 

    “It cannot be that 400 led service line replacements will also necessitate the cutting down of 400 healthy trees,” La Spata said, citing an estimate for his own ward. 

    Cheng said there are “a couple different way” to ensure trees are not harmed, including a “trenchless technology for lead service line replacement” that would “minimize disruption.”   

    “We take that initiative very seriously and try...to minimize the impact on trees,” Cheng said. 

    Chicago is also waiting on federal funding from a potential Congressional infrastructure package to accelerate the city’s lead line replacement. 

    “It's not a guarantee as of yet,” Cheng said. “They're still kind of stalled out but the hope is that they'll allocate $15 billion to lead service line replacement at the federal level, and that will get filtered down to the states.” 

    “We have been advocating to get the biggest piece of pie possible given the number of lead service lines that we have,” Cheng said. 

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