- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

The Libyan government took 25 years to repair diplomatic ties with the United States to be able to reopen an embassy in the District, but it can’t because the District’s utilities authority refuses to turn on water service.

At issue is more than $27,000 in outstanding water and sewer bills for the property where the Libyan government is trying to reopen its embassy on U.S. soil for the first time since 1981.

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) has filed liens and shut off sewer and water service for the property, located at 2201 Wyoming Ave. NW.

The dispute prompted Libya last week to file a lawsuit against WASA in federal court in the District. The suit demands that water and sewer service be turned on and that WASA pay $1 million in damages.

This isn’t the first time WASA has tangled with a foreign government. The utility has filed property liens against more than a dozen foreign countries in recent years, though several embassies eventually settled the debts, records show.

In its lawsuit, Libya says it hasn’t occupied the Wyoming Avenue property since 1981, when the United States cut diplomatic ties with the country and shut its embassy.

The Libyan government wants to reopen the embassy because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice upgraded relations with Libya in May.

During the years Libya had no embassy in the District, the United Arab Emirates took control of the property. For several years, “squatters” stayed there without permission from Libya or the United Arab Emirates, the suit says.

The United Arab Emirates evicted the squatters in 2003 and ordered water and sewer service to be shut off, the suit says.

WASA won’t provide water or sewer service until the outstanding bill is paid.

WASA records show water and sewer accounts at the property in the name of the “United Kingdom of Libya,” and the authority has filed a lien demanding payment.

The Libyan government, however, says it shouldn’t have to pay because it didn’t authorize the service.

A WASA spokeswoman yesterday said she could not comment on the dispute because the authority’s policy is not to discuss pending lawsuits.

In general, WASA spokeswoman Michele Quander-Collins said, the agency doesn’t treat foreign embassies any differently than any other ratepaying customers.

“Basically, if they’re in arrears, we pursue the customer, no matter who they are,” she said. “Most of the time, once we file a lien, the customer will make arrangements to pay.”

But collecting debts from foreign governments can pose different challenges.

“We’ve seen situations where the embassies have claimed they weren’t there when the service was rendered, or else their country is no longer in existence,” Miss Quander-Collins said.

WASA has filed liens against several foreign countries for debts ranging from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands of dollars, according to city records.

The Republic of Yugoslavia fell apart in the 1990s, becoming the independent states of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Yet Yugoslavia still owes more than $14,000 to WASA, according to a lien filed last year.

The former Zaire — now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo — has had more than $20,000 in outstanding bills owed to WASA, according to a property lien the utility filed at the D.C. Office of the Recorder of the Deeds in April.

An official at the Congolese Embassy yesterday said officials would not discuss the matter.

Other countries facing WASA liens for outstanding bills in recent years include the Ivory Coast, which owes $6,151, and the Republic of Guinea, which owes $10,796, city records show.

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