- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

Jerry Johnson, general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), has a new mantra: “Facts will overcome fear.” While you’d expect the media frenzy surrounding high lead levels in the water of D.C. homes might ignite Mr. Johnson’s calm and collected demeanor, it has only made him more constant in his concern.

“When the dust settles … it will be determined that we did the appropriate thing to identify an emerging problem and did what we needed to do to arrest that problem,” Mr. Johnson said.

First things first, however. Mr. Johnson is well aware that the District, even with its efforts to tackle the lead problem, must now do a better job of presenting those “facts” to calm the public’s raging waters.

“The water in the pipes and flowing through the system is lead-free,” Mr. Johnson said, contrary to reports “that had everybody gripped in absolute fear that the water is contaminated.” Mr. Johnson said the positive results from testing D.C. schools should offer some reassurance that “it’s quality water.”

Could WASA have done a better job of notifying the public sooner of last summer’s test results, which showed elevated levels of lead in 23,000 homes? “Yes,” he concedes in hindsight. Could it have issued fewer mixed messages concerning proper water usage? “Yes,” again. However, Mr. Johnson said WASA wanted more comprehensive analysis of the test data before unnecessarily alarming the public. Those studies still are being conducted with the additional help of outside experts. Why the water is attacking pipes remains a mystery. How much lead is bad for you is another unanswered question.

WASA also needed clearer and faster guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency and the D.C. health department before the public’s outcry. Now the agencies are all in agreement.

Testing will continue. Filters will be issued. And, WASA will try to come up with a way to help some homeowners replace lead-based pipes on their private property.

In recent days, critics have called for an independent audit and the ouster of WASA’s leadership, which includes Mr. Johnson.

An independent audit eventually will be useful. To change operational management in the midst of this emergency, as even D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams asserts, would only exacerbate the problem.

For one thing, there is simply not enough time for new administrators to get up to speed while District residents drown in bad information.

Let those who created the immediate problem — which apparently is not entirely WASA’s failure or responsibility given everyone now involved in the damage control — face the firing squad and fix the problem first. Then, in hindsight, if management changes are needed to improve the overall water and sewer system in the future, so be it.

“Fire people, that’s the way things get fixed in D.C., right?” asked Mr. Johnson rhetorically.

Mr. Johnson, 56, halfheartedly jokes that he is entering “Methuselah territory” in the District. He’s watched four city administrators, four fire chiefs and three police chiefs come and go during his seven-year tenure as operations chief for WASA.

Those familiar with Mr. Johnson, including yours truly, who met him in the mid-1970s when he was assistant to the Alexandria city manager, know his reputation as a competent, level-headed administrator. He had served in numerous jobs, including running utilities in Richmond in the 1980s before joining WASA in June 1997.

“It is no bonus, benefit or advantage to me to try to cover up something and let this ruin my reputation,” he said.

Mr. Johnson remembers when he first went to work for WASA. The agency was bankrupt and needed to borrow money to make the payroll. Now he touts its AA bond rating — “better than the District government.” In his first days at WASA, the District had just come through a “boil water” alert. Now, Mr. Johnson asserts the water is safe.

In the decade before joining the agency, the system had been neglected and left to corrode. Now, hundreds of pipes have been replaced or are slated for replacement, the Blue Plains treatment facility and headquarters have been upgraded and they are renovating the Bryant Street pumping station. None of it can be completed without considerable costs.

In the latest controversy about lead in some of the city’s older pipes, Mr. Johnson said it was actually WASA’s voluntary attempts to go beyond its regulatory responsibilities created the confusion.

Exactly who should be boiled here? What about the mayor and the D.C. Council members, who should have known about the lead problem earlier, given that each appoints representatives to WASA’s board which, in turn, issues regular mandatory reports? What about the lax D.C. health department’s response to WASA’s lead findings? Where was the Army Corps of Engineers, which oversee the Washington Aqueduct? Perhaps when Virginia Republican Rep. Thomas M. Davis III holds congressional hearings later this week, he will determine whether EPA standards should come under revision.

Mr. Johnson points out that EPA only required WASA to test 100 homes and issue notices with specific, generic wording. Had the agency decided not to expand the testing, the spike in lead levels many not have been discovered, WASA would still have been in compliance, “and everybody would have gone along willy-nilly.” Now we know better. “If we ever get repositioned to get the facts out there, we can regain confidence and calm people down,” he said.

Now is not the time to point fingers; now is the time for less frenzy and more frequent, full facts.

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