Chicago is Ready to Be #LeadFree: A Fight for Safe Drinking Water

Oct 28, 2023 | BM4F Spotlights, Uncategorized, Young, Gifted & Green Blog Series | 0 comments

As a Southside Chicago native and self proclaimed social justice warrior, attending the “Let’s Get the Lead Out, Chicago!” Rally organized by the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) was a beautiful moment of hope, unity, determination and purpose in the fight to make our nation #LeadFree. Returning to the city that made me, raising awareness and support for such a critical issue and seeing how adamant and prepared Chicagoans are to fix this issue was such a powerful affirmation that we are moving in the right direction to meet the moment head on. Organizers, activists, community members and onlookers gathered at Daley Plaza on October 5th, 2023, to address a critical issue that plagues my hometown: lead pipes and contaminated drinking water. The passion and resilience of Chicagoans in their quest for safe, lead-free water left me awestruck, inspired, and resolved.

Lead in Drinking Water: A Silent Threat

Lead in drinking water is a silent and insidious threat to the health of current and future Chicago residents. It’s a problem deeply rooted in the city’s racist redlining history, with approximately 400,000 known lead service lines still in place, making it the city with the most lead service lines in the country (Illinois has the most lines as a state with 686,259 as of 2018). These lead service lines pose a severe health risk as many of these lines were installed decades ago when the dangers of lead were categorically ignored by government and industry at the time, disproportionately endangering Black residents, especially children, with high levels of lead exposure for generations to come. 

A 2020 study by the Metropolitan Planning Council revealed, “65% of the state’s Black and Latinx residents, and 42% of Illinois’ Asian-American and Native American populations, are living in communities containing 94% of the state’s known lead service lines; meanwhile, only 30% of the state’s white population is living in those same communities.” Health research consistently shows that there are no safe levels of lead exposure. Even small trace amounts of lead can result in irreversible health damage and risks in both children and adults, with children under 5 facing the greatest risk. So while the problem may have begun a long time ago, its effects are still being felt decades later, creating new problems and health risks for more and more Chicagoans everyday. Even more telling, is that it is still disproportionately affecting Black and Brown Chicagoans. We know the communities least responsible and most vulnerable typically receive the worst of negative environmental impacts, so now we must act on that knowledge and ensure they are prioritized in its remedy.

The Rally: A Unified Call for Change

The fiery spirit of the Chicago crowd was present from the moment I entered Daley Plaza. Organizers, activists, and community partners gathered together moments before the rally started and greeted each other with love and excitement ahead of the day’s events. I met and spoke with leaders from all walks of life learning about how they are educating and organizing their communities to advocate for change. I met Óscar Sánchez, a community planning manager at Southeast Environmental Task Force (one of the presenting orgs!), a nonprofit organization dedicated to serving the southeast side and south suburbs of Chicago by promoting environmental education, pollution prevention, and sustainable development. We talked about the cool and innovative programming they’ve accomplished and swapped organizer stories from our careers. He introduced me to some fellow changemakers who were also early. I ran into some fellow BM4F Tribe members, and we got to catch up about our respective work in the EJ space as well as just do a wellness check. The sense of community was strong, and I was so relieved and touched to see the activist community be so healthy, thriving, and welcoming. Eventually the crowd filled out and it was time for the rally to begin.

NRDC had a star studded lineup of diverse, engaging, and well-informed speakers for the powerful rally. They included groups like Bridges//Puentes, Faith in Place, Illinois PIRG, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, and Southeast Environmental Task Force. On the government side we were graced by Angela Tovar, the chief sustainability officer for Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson; Illinois State Senator Ram Villivalam; Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jackson Potter; Alaina Harkness, the executive director for Current Water; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 5 Administrator Debra Shore; and our closer NRDC’s own Chakena Perry, Senior Policy Advocate for NRDC’s Safe Water Initiative. Each speaker brought to the conversation their unique perspective of how the lead issue was affecting their communities. Parents and community members spoke about the challenges from a homeowner and family perspective, sharing personal stories of the cost they paid for the city’s previous inaction and apathy. CTU VP spoke about the correlation between lead exposure and behavioral issues in students, and demanded we do better for our Chicago scholars, who deserve clean drinking water in both their schools and homes. The ED for Current Water spoke about how lead pipe replacement could revitalize workforce development and EPA R5 Administrator reinforced the agency’s commitment to a strong, updated Lead and Copper Rule this fall. 

With each speaker, you could feel the desire for a lead free Chicago grow in the crowd. The applause grew louder and louder. The chants and calls grew more visceral, reverberating from the surrounding skyscrapers creating a beautiful symphony of democracy and beckoning curious tourists and citizens to see what all the fuss was about. It was hard not to get emotional when I could feel the chants and the energy of the space radiate from my feet on the stage, pound through my heart, and reflected amongst the crowd in their eyes, chants, and zealous incomparable spirit.

The Challenge: A 50-Year Timeline & Call for EPA Action: A 10-Year Deadline

Former Mayor Lori Lightfoot initiated a program in 2020 to provide financial assistance to residents for lead service line removal. However, progress on this front has been frustratingly slow and inefficient. A report by the Chicago Sun-Times revealed, as of December 2022, the city had only replaced 280 lead service lines. The current plan to eliminate lead service lines requires  a 50 year timeline, which is far too long for the people of Chicago to bear. The urgency of this crisis demands a much more rapid, comprehensive, and equitable response.

Activists at the rally urged the EPA to enforce a 10-year deadline to replace all lead service lines, making it clear that they couldn’t and wouldn’t wait for half a century for safe drinking water. The crowd shared empathy and freedom rejoicing in the shared knowledge that lead pipes are a burden they didn’t choose and the conviction of refusing to let it define their future. The demand for a 10-year deadline reflected the unity, determination, and hope of the Chicago community who know that safe drinking water is not a luxury or a privilege but a basic human right for every single Chicagoan regardless of their race, zip code, or class.

A Vision of Safe Drinking Water

The “Let’s Get the Lead Out, Chicago!” Rally was a powerful testament to the strength of Chicagoans in the face of adversity. It was a reflection of democracy in action, where people came together to address an issue deeply impacting them, their loved ones, and the city’s overall health, with the hope of making a real change. As a Southsider with a career in issue-based advocacy and having witnessed the power of collective action I know my city and its community of changemakers will be relentless in their pursuit of a safe and healthy Chicago. The rally demonstrated that Chicagoans are MORE THAN READY to #GetTheLeadOut. We have solutions, regulatory recommendations, government incentives, and direct democracy tactics to achieve this goal. We will not be denied our inalienable right to clean drinking water, a healthy environment, and a government that prioritizes our safety and wellbeing above all else.

The call for the EPA to update regulations and enforce a 10-year deadline to replace lead service lines is a critical step towards securing safe drinking water for all Chicago residents. The urgency of this issue cannot be overstated, and the unity of the rally attendees sends a clear message: Chicago will not wait decades for safe water; the time for change was yesterday, but now will have to suffice.

As we move forward, it is my hope that the collective efforts of activists, organizers, and concerned citizens will lead to a future where safe drinking water is not just a dream, but a reality for every Chicagoan. This rally was a pivotal moment in that journey, and it exemplified what democracy truly looks like: a united front against a common threat, driven by the shared vision of a safer and healthier future for all.

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