Tom Powers announces resignation after Monday’s announcement regarding testing for lead poisoning
Following the Flint Water Crisis, and coupled by growing concerns within the community about potentially elevated levels of lead throughout Chicago’s drinking water supply, The Chicago Department of Public Health announced on Monday a new initiative to test tap water in homes with children harmed by the chemical.
As preparations were made following Monday’s statement to determine whether city’s pipes are partly responsible for problems with lead poisoning, Water Management commissioner Tom Powers announced his resignation, prompting many to speculate whether willful negligence in the upkeep of the city’s water pipes had occurred during his tenure as commissioner.
He will be replaced by Barrett Murphy, a deputy who has worked for the city since the former Mayor Richard M. Daley administration.
In a statement Thursday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel said “Over the last five years, Tom has overseen a historic investment in Chicago’s infrastructure that has helped to build a better Chicago and I thank him for his service to the city. Moving forward, Barrett Murphy’s vast knowledge of and experience within the Department make him the best choice for the job as we continue to implement our 10-year Capital Improvement Program.”
Powers was widely regarded as Emanuel’s go-to guy on infrastructure projects because of his record on promoting more efficient workflows not arriving at the expense of uprooting entire city blocks. When Emanuel more than doubled water and sewer rates over a four-year period, it was largely with the confidence in Powers’ ability to deliver the massive project on time and under budget.
While the official news release claims that Powers’ departure was to “pursue other professional endeavors” and that the transition had long been planned, the coinciding with the city’s decision to start testing tap water in the South and West Side homes of children who have suffered from lead poisoning following the cautionary tale of Flint leaves many skeptical as to the timing and whether large-scale negligence is the potential source.
Lead poisoning, particularly in corroded water pipes, has become an issue following the crisis in Flint, MI. Related investigations revealed elevated lead levels in over 30 Newark Public Schools in early March.
Similar to both of those cases, Chicago’s ongoing problems with lead poisoning disproportionately affects children from neighborhoods that are low-income and predominantly Black.
A February Tribune investigation found hot spots of lead poisoning in some of the city’s poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods.
“I had several conversations with them about the fact that numerous outside entities were finding high lead in Chicago water. Then they stopped returning my phone calls,” said Marc Edwards, a Virginia Tech researcher and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” recipient.
Exposure to even small amounts of lead in children causes subtle brain damage that can trigger learning disabilities and violent behavior later in life. The damage caused from lead poisoning is permanent.
Reports began surfacing as early as 2013 that Chicago’s Austin neighborhood had elevated levels of lead poisoning in its drinking water, disproportionately affecting young Black children. Lanice Walker, whose 4-year old daughter had been diagnosed with lead poisoning, pleaded with the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) to ask for an emergency move from their home on Leamington Avenue.
Despite the amount of lead in her daughter’s blood stream being 11 micrograms per deciliter, more than two times higher than the standard for medical monitoring set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, CHA denied her request for a transfer.
“They treated me like I was nothing, like my daughter didn’t matter,” said Walker.
Unlike most other major U.S. cities, Chicago required usage of lead pipes until the federal government officially banned them nationwide in the mid 1980s. Lead service lines still connect nearly 80% of the city’s properties to street mains, according to the Chicago Department of Water Management.
As news of this resignation was made public, whether Powers’ decision was motivated from the need for new scenery or seeing the writing on the wall ahead remains ultimately unclear.
Nonetheless, Chicago aldermen are sorry to see him depart from public service.
“He’s the best commissioner I’ve ever seen in terms of responsiveness. If you have a leak, he’ll come out at any time, night or day,” said South Side Ald. Mike Zalewski (23rd).