- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 11, 2004

D.C. Water and Sewer Authority officials said yesterday that they should have done a better job of informing the public when tap water tests in 2002 and 2003 revealed high traces of lead contamination.

“Should we have been more explicit and turned up the volume? My preliminary answer is yes,” Glenn S. Gerstell, chairman of the board for WASA, said yesterday during a meeting with editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

“I think we have learned a lesson from this,” Mr. Gerstell said.

About 23,000 of WASA’s 130,000 service lines contain lead, according to WASA officials who said they are studying how much it would cost to replace lead service lines in the District.

Mr. Gerstell said preliminary estimates indicate that the project would cost at least $300 million and mainly rate payers would pay for the costs.

Samples taken at more than 4,000 homes since 2002 have found levels well above the safe range of 15 parts per billion. Early tests in 2002 required WASA to begin a public information campaign under federal Environmental Protection Agency rules.

D.C. officials said, however, that WASA did not do enough to let the public know about lead contamination.

“The WASA board should have been much more aggressive about getting information out to the public,” Mayor Anthony A. Williams said yesterday.

“WASA wanted to keep us in the dark, and they did,” said D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican. Mrs. Schwartz, who chairs the council’s Public Works Committee, said WASA should have done more than use public service announcements and insert notices into bills to inform customers of the problem.

WASA officials said yesterday that the problems are most common in homes built during the first half of the 20th century, including those in the Capitol Hill and Adams Morgan sections.

“No one has told them what this means for their families, for themselves and for their children,” said council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat.

The lead problems were reported first in The Washington Post.

Jerry Johnson, WASA general manager, said yesterday that the agency did not do more to tell the public about the problems in 2002 because early tests were based on relatively few samples.

Mr. Johnson said the agency’s low-key response was “out of an abundance of caution and not wanting to cause hysteria.”

WASA officials said the D.C. Department of Health has begun canvassing door-to-door at least 150 homes where tests showed lead levels in the tap water exceeding 300 parts per billion.

Mr. Gerstell said WASA also is offering free testing to residents in homes and businesses that are served by the 23,000 lead service lines.

WASA officials say residents can call 202/787-2732 to find out whether their homes are served by a lead service line.

This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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