- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

A D.C. Council member yesterday called for sanctions against the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority along with an immediate change in the agency’s leadership amid continued criticism over its handling of lead contamination in the city’s tap water.

“Why does WASA not care about the health of the people who pay their salaries?” Council member Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, asked during an oversight hearing of the agency yesterday.

Mr. Fenty called for a “change in the leadership of WASA immediately.” He also said top agency officials should be penalized for their handling of the lead-contamination problems.

However, Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican, disagreed.

“I don’t think having heads roll in the middle of a crisis is the answer,” she said. “I think it’s sexy, but I don’t think it’s responsible.”

WASA officials have been the target of mounting criticism in recent weeks from elected officials and residents, who say the agency did not do enough to inform them about follow-up tests over the summer that revealed high levels of lead in the city’s tap water. Testing initially was done in 2002.

Jerry Johnson, general manager, said WASA is working to inform residents with lead service lines about the problem.

“The plan is to alert these persons with lead service lines as quickly as we can get correspondence out to them,” Mr. Johnson said.

About 23,000 of WASA’s 130,000 service lines contain lead. Samples taken at more than 4,000 homes since 2002 have found lead levels well above the safe range of 15 parts per billion.

WASA Board of Directors Chairman Glen Gerstell yesterday said the agency has tried several ways in recent weeks to deal with the lead problem.

He said the agency tentatively has approved plans to purchase water filters for homes with lead pipes where pregnant women or young children live. He also said WASA is considering plans to replace all 23,000 of the lead-heavy service lines in the city.

Mr. Gerstell said the project would last five years. He also said the replacement could mean higher charges of $6 to $7 more per WASA customer each month.

That news didn’t sit well with council members.

“It is rubbing salt in the wound,” said Council member Sharon Ambrose, Ward 6 Democrat. “Because WASA and the EPA perhaps happened to make some errors in judgment, people’s rates are going to go up.”

Testing that indicated high levels of lead in 2002 obligated WASA to follow a federal requirement to launch a public-information campaign telling the public about the results. WASA officials say they did that, citing the public-service announcements and notices inserted into bills informing customers about the problem.

Council members also said WASA notifications were not specific and instead tended to provide only general information about the dangers of lead in the drinking supply.

Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said WASA appears to have followed the letter of the law through its public-information campaign. However, federal officials also said WASA should have gotten the message out more clearly.

“WASA could have done more to effectively communicate the problem to its customers,” said Donald S. Welsh, Regional Administration for the EPA .

Council members also faulted EPA officials for failing to provide proper oversight of WASA.

“I truly do not hold you harmless in this issue,” Mrs. Schwartz told EPA officials.

Council member Jim Graham, Ward 1 Democrat, said customers should not be required to pay higher rates if they can’t use their water supply.

“Why should people pay for water they cannot drink?” said Mr. Graham, who was referring to a recent D.C. Department of Health advisory warning pregnant mothers and young children against drinking tap water if tests revealed high traces of lead.

Mr. Graham accused WASA’s Mr. Johnson of having a record of “nondisclosure and even cover-up.” Mr. Johnson said Mr. Graham’s response to the problem has created unnecessary hysteria among city residents.

WASA officials said the problems of lead contamination is most common in homes built during the first half of the 20th century. High lead levels were found in the Capitol Hill and Adams Morgan sections of the city.

WASA officials said individuals who have questions about their water can call the agency’s lead hot line at 202/787-2732.

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