Chicago Accused of Hiding Emails About Lead

CHICAGO (CN) – An Illinois government watchdog says Chicago improperly redacted information from emails the group requested about high levels of lead found in the drinking water at city schools.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan Better Government Association filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Cook County Circuit Court against the city’s Office of the Mayor and Department of Public Health, “seeking the release of records about lead in drinking water consumed by Chicago Public School students and the city’s efforts to manage media stories and public inquiry about this issue.”

Last year, it was discovered that over 100 CPS schools had high levels of lead in their drinking water, “often more than 300 parts per billion and as high as 1,100 parts per billion,” according to the complaint.

An acceptable level of lead in water is 15 parts per billion and bottled water can have no more than five parts per billion.

BGA says “the unacceptable high levels of lead in CPS drinking water were not discovered by CPS or the city. Rather, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune revealed that CPS and the city had not tested the drinking water provided to young school children since at least 2012.”

The Tribune asked the city for information on school lead testing in April 2016, and the city eventually had to admit it could not supply the records because no tests had been done.

Testing over the following months revealed multiple schools with elevated lead levels in the water. Eventually all water fixtures in every school were tested, finding 366 that had levels that were too high.

Amidst the exposure, BGA asked the city for emails about the lead issue between Health Department Commissioner Julie Morita and anyone in either the mayor’s office or CPS.

After the city insisted its request be narrowed down, BGA asked for communications between only several officials in each department, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, with the keywords “lead” and “CPS.”

BGA claims the emails it received back were heavily redacted, with the city citing an exemption for opinions on public policy for the mayor’s office and offering no excuse for CPS.

Included in the communications are drafts of a letter that was eventually sent out to parents of CPS students with Morita’s comments redacted, leaving BGA “unable to determine the extent to which the city provided information to parents that differs from the comments of its chief public health officer,” according to its lawsuit.

“In fact, the Mayor’s Office has withheld factual information about the CPS lead problem in response to BGA’s request and the discussion did not involve any formulation of policy,” the complaint states.

BGA, represented by Matthew Topic of Loevy & Loevy in Chicago, alleges the city has violated the Freedom of Information Act by withholding the requested information.  

Citing a prior FOIA case in Cook County, BGA says discussions about what information to provide the media and public do not qualify for the deliberative-process exemption.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed a law in January requiring all schools and day care facilities in the state to test their water for lead.

The city is still in the process of testing the drinking water at all CPS schools, but estimated that school lead cleanup would end up costing $2.3 million.

Chicago’s legal department did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment on BGA’s lawsuit.

A class-action lawsuit filed last year claims Chicago has been contaminating its drinking water with lead for years as it tried to fix its aging lead pipes.

Chicago has more lead pipe water lines than any other U.S. city – nearly 80 percent of Chicago properties receive their drinking water from lead pipes, according to the February 2016 complaint.

While the lead catastrophe in Flint, Mich., was caused by switching water sources in a bungled attempt to save money, Chicago’s was allegedly caused by work on the aging pipes.

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