Activists demand more jobs for city residents on DC Water projects

With the District set to spend more than $2 billion over 15 years on a project to keep sewage out of local waterways, activists are pressing city officials to guarantee more jobs for D.C. residents, the people who will pay the bills.

DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project hasn’t posted encouraging numbers so far: D.C. residents accounted for 80 of 381 people hired for the $330 million first phase of the project, according to March figures.

Hiring for other major DC Water projects follows a similar pattern: Of 240 hired on contracts to complete a nitrogen-removal system at the Blue Plains sewage-treatment plant, eight live in the District. On an $81 million project to build a power plant at Blue Plains, three of 175 employees live in the District; 48 are Missouri residents, and 47 live in North Carolina.

DC Water is not alone. Other city agencies have undertaken major public-works projects that did not create significant numbers of jobs for D.C. residents, even as lawmakers tried to boost local hiring by providing carrots and sticks.

But the Washington Interfaith Network, a federation of 48 churches that focuses on affordable housing and unemployment, said that DC Water needs to do a better job of keeping money in the city that residents spend on ever-rising water bills.

The DC Water figures are more discouraging because the work is being done in a part of the city with the greatest need for jobs, said the Rev. Kelly D. Wilkins, minister of social justice at Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ. According to city figures for February, the unemployment rate was 21.6 percent in Ward 8, where Blue Plains is located.

“We have the highest unemployment in the District,” Wilkins said, referring to Ward 8. “In a city where we have so much wealth, and where D.C. residents are investing so much money, how are we not getting investment back in our community?”

Last month, more than 800 WIN members assembled at Temple Sinai in Northwest Washington to demand action from D.C. Council members. On Wednesday night, capping a series of demonstrations at DC Water town hall meetings, WIN members packed a downtown hearing on a proposed water rate increase, demanding that the utility’s board commit to a jobs plan and other community benefits before raising rates again.

“Shame on you, DC Water,” Wilkins told the board. “We’re not paying for something if we’re not being invested in.”

City and utility officials say that they are sympathetic to WIN’s demands and that they, too, want more city residents to find employment opportunities through the utility, which is planning to spend $3.8 billion on capital improvements over the next decade. But they say hiring goals are complicated by federal contracting rules and the utility’s regional governance. Also, they say, the specialized nature of the work means that relatively unskilled local workers aren’t good candidates.

‘No disagreement’

“There’s no disagreement that we have to do something,” said George S. Hawkins, DC Water’s general manager. “It’s almost like a conflict or a battle where there’s no opposing side.”

Sixty percent of the utility’s sewage-treatment projects, Hawkins said, are funded by area jurisdictions other than the District. That makes it politically tricky to encourage the hiring of D.C. residents, as opposed to residents of the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

“It’s a regional agency with regional partners, and we have to be sensitive to that,” said Allen Y. Lew, the D.C. city administrator who also serves as DC Water’s board chairman.

The $2.6 billion Clean Rivers Project is somewhat different, however. The court-mandated effort to divert sewage-laden storm water into underground storage tunnels — where it would be held for treatment rather than dumped into local waterways — is being funded almost entirely by D.C. ratepayers, although there have been federal contributions.

Hawkins said DC Water opened an “opportunity center” at Blue Plains, leading to 12 recent District hires, including nine people from east of the Anacostia River. But many of the jobs on the tunneling project, he said, involve “high-level engineering” and other technical expertise, which untrained local residents don’t have and can’t quickly get.

Another approach

WIN is supporting a DC Water proposal to substitute “green infrastructure” projects for part of the tunnel program as a way to keep storm water from overtaxing the sewage system. WIN and Hawkins say those projects would provide employment more accessible to District residents — such as jobs constructing green roofs, rain gardens, bioswales, permeable alleys and other aboveground features meant to absorb rainwater.

DC Water and the city are in talks with the Environmental Protection Agency about modifying the court order to build the tunnels, a move opposed by some local environmental groups concerned that a change could delay cleanup efforts.

Meanwhile, Lew said he wants to encourage local hiring and subcontracting through practices that were effective on projects he has overseen, including the construction of the convention center and the baseball stadium.

“Instead of a lot of verbiage and studies and analysis, I know what works,” he said. “I just need DC Water trained and assimilated into this. . . . Once I do that, I expect it to be auto­pilot.”

Hawkins and Lew met with WIN leaders Monday to discuss their concerns. Wilkins said that she was encouraged but that WIN wants to see a more formal commitment to hiring city residents. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said he is considering legislation to set out hiring goals for DC Water.

“We don’t care how they implement the community-benefit agreement as long as there’s a standard . . . and there’s some accountability,” Wilkins said.

Mike DeBonis covers local politics and government for The Washington Post. He also writes a blog and a political analysis column that runs on Fridays.
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