This week, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) joined the ranks of such ignoble characters as brutal Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, biting professional boxer Mike Tyson, and Baltimore Orioles franchise destroyer Peter Angelos: The independent agency entrusted with providing safe drinking water for the District has been named “Bonehead of the Week” in the Brazil Bulletin, the newsletter distributed by At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil.
In fact, WASA did previous offenders one better: “WASA...gets the double bonehead award for failing to warn residents of unsafe drinking water and failing to take aggressive actions to ameliorate this problem,” writes Brazil.
The “double bonehead award”?
Now that’s quite a distinction.
In his call to action, Brazil demands the firing of WASA’s leadership, including General Manager Jerry Johnson and the chair of its board, Glenn Gerstell. (Ward 4 colleague Adrian M. Fenty has advocated their ouster, as well.) The at-large councilmember cites a “gross failure of management and lack of sufficient concern for the public health.”
LL predicts Johnson and Gerstell’s response: We’ve gotta take this crap from a guy for whom “oversight” is a double-entendre?
LL’s response: Yes.
Even the bumbling Brazil, a former federal prosecutor, might be able to put together a convincing case finding WASA guilty of gross misfeasance. But Brazil is consumed with his own self-preservation right now—fighting off a possible re-election challenge from colleague and Ward 1 Councilmember Jim Graham as well as newcomers Kwame Brown and Sam Brooks. So LL will save him the trouble and file our own charging document:
Count 1: WASA knew about dangerously high levels of lead in its water.
WASA has two essential duties: deliver clean, nontoxic drinking water to its customers and carry it away when they’re done with it.
According to its own documents, the independent agency first became aware of a problem with the city’s drinking water more than two years ago. A routine sample of 53 homes from July 2001 to June 2002 detected amounts of lead in the water exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s comfort level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).
Over time, lead buildup in the human body has detrimental health effects. Ingesting high levels of lead may eventually cause damage to the brain, red blood cells, and the kidneys. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children under the age of 6 are especially vulnerable to health risks from ingestion of lead.
Given the alarming results, WASA greatly expanded its test sample. By last fall, the agency had confirmed that it had a problem: Two-thirds of the homes tested in the District—4,075 of 6,118—had drinking water flowing out of the tap with more than 15 ppb of lead in it. Former WASA Water Quality Manager Seema Bhat testified before the D.C. Council last month that she had alerted both WASA and EPA higher-ups to the elevated lead levels and warned the local agency that it would be in violation of federal guidelines if it didn’t take aggressive corrective action.
Bhat was fired in March 2003. A federal investigator later ruled that Bhat had been improperly terminated and ordered the water agency to reinstate her and pay damages. WASA has appealed the decision, which is still in litigation.
Meanwhile, WASA officials remained puzzled over the high lead levels in the water. The best educated guess hypothesized that the heightened levels may have had something to do with corroding lead service lines, which, given the test results, WASA was required by federal mandate to replace at the rate of 7 percent a year. Approximately 23,000 of WASA’s 130,000 customers in the District have lead service lines, according to the agency.
Count 2: WASA downplayed the lead scare as much as possible.
In October 2002, WASA distributed a colorful brochure to all its customers acknowledging National Lead Awareness Week. Snappily subtitled “Living Lead-Free in D.C.,” the brochure breezily touched upon the findings of heightened lead levels in its water supply: “[I]n the annual monitoring period ending June 30, 2002, the lead results indicate that although most homes have very low levels of lead in their drinking water, some homes in the community have lead levels above the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion...”
In other words: Don’t worry. Drink the recommended eight glasses of water a day from the tap and be healthy.
The agency touts that it shared results with the 6,000 homeowners involved in the expanded sample, including 157 who lived in homes with water flowing at or above 300 ppb of lead—20 times the EPA action level. “We fully disclosed, in our view, what the situation was,” WASA Deputy General Manager Michael Marcotte told the Washington Post. “We let people know there was an issue.”
According to various local media reports, some participants in the expanded WASA sample say they learned of their metal-enhanced water only after repeatedly bugging the agency for the results. WASA did convene information sessions in late 2003 but did not specify that the get-togethers would be to disclose information about heightened lead levels in the city’s water. Even the most danger-sensitive District residents stayed away from what were billed as meetings “to discuss and solicit public comments on WASA’s Safe Drinking Water Act projects.”
Maybe the agency didn’t like the sound of a forum titled “Lead: It’s Not Just in Paint Chips Anymore.”
So how did a majority of the city’s residents, including the city’s elected officials, learn of the lead “issue”?
By reading a Jan. 31 front-page story in the Post: “Water in D.C. Exceeds EPA Lead Limit; Random Tests Last Summer Found High Levels in 4,000 Homes Throughout City.”
In a White House press briefing last week, a reporter asked whether President George W. Bush drinks D.C. tap water. Given the fact that Bush proudly refrains from reading the nation’s leading newspapers, LL hopes that press secretary Scott McClellan has by now informed the president of the lead risk.
Or perhaps Bush received WASA’s “Lead in the District of Columbia Fact Sheet” and “An Information Guide on Lead in Drinking Water” brochures in the mail at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. NW recently.
The propaganda demonstrates WASA’s light touch with regard to the lead issue. The September 2003 “information guide” echoes the language in its earlier brochure: “Although most homes have very low levels of lead...” Blah blah blah.
But by September 2003, two-thirds of homes in WASA’s testing showed high amounts of lead—in fact, 2,287 out of 6,118 had levels exceeding 50 ppb. That sounds like a lot of lead to LL.
“We are working with EPA, the D.C. Department of Health, and the Washington Aqueduct to assure that your health is protected and your water is safe,” reads a Feb. 9 letter D.C. residents received from Johnson. “We realize our notification campaign didn’t get through to everyone, so we are now enclosing additional information.”
Count 3: WASA exploited the D.C. Council’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to oversight over the independent agency.
At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, who chairs the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, prides herself in knowing the most minute details—like how much each trash truck costs the city, honey. The longtime public servant especially likes to put department heads on the hot seat—and to remind Mayor Anthony A. Williams that under a Schwartz administration these kinds of shenanigans, whatever they might be, wouldn’t be happening.
“From the minute I learned about the problem, I jumped on it with all force,” Schwartz told LL after a Monday-afternoon lead press briefing at D.C. General Hospital.
When exactly was that?
The last week of January, when the Post contacted Schwartz and her staff about the lead story. “I’m furious about the fact we did not know about this,” Schwartz told the newspaper. In emergency hearings a week later, Schwartz ripped into WASA officials for not keeping her abreast of the lead problem.
According to the agency, WASA did give information to councilmembers about the heightened lead levels in the water. LL can understand if Ward 7’s Kevin P. Chavous glossed over the warning, what with his being all bogged down in schools policy and everything.
But the DPW diva? Isn’t this the kind of thing Schwartz should have been asking about in oversight hearings?
In Tuesday’s legislative session, Schwartz received approval from her colleagues to use subpoena power to investigate the WASA lead debacle. The measure passed unanimously—which reflects the collective guilt of a body that knows it didn’t do its due diligence regarding the independent agency.
Guilt might also account for Schwartz’s reluctance to ask for anyone’s head. “In the middle of the crisis, I don’t know why you’d take the people with knowledge out,” explains Schwartz. The lead issue might not have reached this crisis, though, if the council had questioned the agency about the heightened lead levels earlier.
Mayor Williams echoed Schwartz’s comments in his press conference last week. Yet Williams has many allies on the WASA board—including board members Gerstell and Lucy Murray, as well as alternate board member Jim Wareck.
Perhaps one of them could have called the mayor and told him to be careful drinking from the tap?
Count 4: WASA is still failing to help citizens protect themselves.
Like many other District residents, LL read the Jan. 31 Post story with much concern. The next Monday, LL called the WASA lead hot line to request a test kit for our tap water.
LL left a message.
A day or two later, LL called and left another message.
That Friday, Feb. 6, LL read in the Post that WASA had increased staffing for its hot line. LL once again called 787-2732, this time reaching a WASA representative, who informed LL that our Mount Pleasant row house was one of the 23,000 with a lead service line. The representative promised to send a test kit right away.
LL spent the next hour researching how much lead our Brita filter removes.
A few hours later, LL happened to be on WAMU’s D.C. Politics Hour. WASA came up as a topic of discussion, and LL mentioned our own struggles in making contact with the agency. Over that weekend, LL received calls from two different WASA representatives inquiring whether LL had gotten a kit yet.
Yet LL can safely say the agency didn’t coddle the media: It took three more weeks and a phone call to WASA PR man Johnnie Hemphill for LL to receive our test kit.
LL now eagerly awaits the results.
“Where we are aware of a situation where someone has a particular health concern and young children, we’ll work with them as quickly as we can in the process,” Marcotte told the Post.
Yet LL remains astounded at WASA’s outreach strategy. Here’s the agency’s attitude: If you really have a health concern, you’ll contact us.
After the Monday press conference, LL asked Johnson why the agency doesn’t just go ahead and distribute test kits to all 23,000 homes at possible risk.
“We have a way to do the sampling process,” Johnson responded.
When the lead story dominated news headlines, city leaders quickly formed a task force to address the issue and strategize. That seems to be a painstaking process. At the Monday press gathering, WASA General Manager Johnson discussed how the agency planned on distributing 3,000 water filters to day-care centers in the District.
Yet when Post reporter Craig Timberg asked Johnson to specify the brand of filter, Johnson said he did not know. “I’m not sure exactly how they work,” Johnson also told Timberg.
That gives LL little confidence that the agency has taken public concerns about lead in the water seriously. More than a month after the lead story broke, the agency still can’t say whether the service lines are the source of the problem.
And if the pipes are to blame, how will WASA find those most at risk—pregnant women and children under 6 with a lead service line? “It’s unclear how we’ll find them right now,” WASA’s Patricia Wheeler told LL after the press conference. —Elissa Silverman
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