- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

A D.C. Council member yesterday called for a criminal investigation into the city’s Water and Sewer Authority amid accusations that top officials withheld information about lead in the District’s tap water.

Council member Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, sent a letter yesterday asking U.S. Attorney Roscoe Howard to investigate whether WASA officials engaged in criminal negligence by failing to properly notify residents about dangerous lead levels in the water.

“If you keep information from residents, there is going to be damage,” Mr. Fenty said. “There should be some sort of investigation for negligence. So let’s begin with an investigation that looks at whether a willful lack of disclosure put people in harm’s way.”

Channing Phillips, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said officials had not received a copy of the council member’s letter. He declined to comment on Mr. Fenty’s request.

Jerry Johnson, general manager of WASA, said the agency is working to remove lead from the city’s tap-water supply.

“We’re trying to correct the problem,” Mr. Johnson said. “Obviously, [Mr. Fenty] doesn’t understand the issue.”

The request from Mr. Fenty came the same day that fellow council member Harold Brazil, at-large Democrat, proposed the creation of a special $20 million fund to pay for the replacement of lead service lines.

The proposed legislation calls for Mayor Anthony A. Williams to set aside the money to replace lead-laced plumbing in the city. Mr. Williams has said he plans to seek federal funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Mr. Brazil said the legislation, which is likely to be introduced today, would pay for the costs private homeowners incur in replacing lead-lined plumbing and fixtures.

Although city officials are working to replace 23,000 lead service lines in the District, homeowners still would have to pay an average of $2,000.

“People should not have to bear the costs of that replacement,” Mr. Brazil said.

He said the program would be funded through the city’s capital budget.

Mr. Brazil said he had spoken to Mr. Fenty about the letter calling for a criminal investigation, but was undecided on whether he supports the request.

Meanwhile, city officials say they continue to offer testing to residents concerned about elevated lead levels in their bloodstream.

The city will offer testing through Thursday at the D.C. Department of Health’s lead clinic at 51 N St. NE. The department also is offering testing through mobile units at various locations in the city.

City officials also say they’re continuing to study whether the switch from chlorine to chloramine chemicals used to treat the water at the Washington Aqueduct in 2001 caused lead levels in the tap water to increase.

“Chemicals in the water is the big, big issue we’re working on right now,” Mr. Johnson said.

WASA officials have faced 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 during the summer that revealed high levels of lead in the tap water. Testing initially was done in 2002.

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 and the city government are facing class-action lawsuits filed last week by two Capitol Hill families whose homes are served by lead service pipes.

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