- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Don’t drink the lead in the water. That is the implicit message wafting above a city that alternates between dysfunction and crisis.

Five city residents have elevated levels of lead in their bloodstreams revealed in tests last weekend, the cause unknown.

The tap water is the leading suspect.

Samples taken from all too many homes in the city show lead levels in the alarm zone.

The lack of communication between the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and the public is the simple part of the indictment, a basic courtesy that went unmet.

That is hardly surprising in a city that often struggles to answer phone calls from those who pick up the tab.

The clearing of throats is the official recourse this week, with bottled water on hand, of course. Answers will come later, if then.

Two D.C. Council members have suggested the rolling of WASA heads, a symbolic gesture not liable to flush the estimated 23,000 service lines that contain lead.

Water is a basic necessity, intended to be a simple pleasure instead of a 50-50 proposition that could damage the body.

City residents are the object of most concerns, although the potential pool of victims is more extensive, considering the number of souls who work or play in the District but live in the suburbs.

A glass of water at a restaurant is not supposed to provoke a moment’s thought.

Jerry Johnson, general manager of WASA, is newly chastened, if not committed to a higher sense of urgency. WASA is in the process of installing 10,000 filters for those customers dependent on lead service lines.

This is after the fact of the revelations, an admission of neglect that, fair or not, places Mr. Johnson in the firing line of his critics.

The inefficiency of the city’s bloated bureaucracy is ever resistant to the most well-intentioned reformers, Mr. Johnson or otherwise. Mayor Anthony A. Williams could write a tome on the subject.

Mr. Johnson has increased the flow of information from WASA, another elementary response that should have been implemented before the water scare overtook the facts.

There is a troubling history with WASA. The city has endured questions regarding the quality of its water in the past, with residents encouraged at one time to boil the seemingly innocuous product coming out of their pipes. The hint of being Calcutta on the Potomac was not lost on anyone.

WASA has made strides from those dreary days in the late ‘90s, just not enough to allay the recent fears.

The city’s bureaucracy, because of its well-documented inertia, is considered guilty until proven innocent. That is the conditioned response of a public accustomed to dealing with sleepy-headed employees of the city, a burgeoning rodent population, inconsistent snow-removal service, the occasional mystery of trash pickup, rogue tow-truck operators, lost days at the Department of Motor Vehicles, an onerous tax rate and an unyielding ticket-writing industry.

That is just for starters.

It seems no oddity is beyond the limited capacity of the city, not even the advent of flying manhole covers.

The fallout from the water is viewed in this broad and unsettling context, with an obligatory follow-up: “What’s next — the bubonic plague?”

The need to calm and restore confidence is arduous.

The D.C. Department of Health insists it is too early to cite tap water as the source of the elevated lead in the five residents. Yet it is not too early to note the breaking of a public trust, the guilty parties still uncovered.

The D.C. Council suggests it was left uninformed by WASA, though not certain why the two-party responsibility stops solely with the utility.

Council members always could have asked one of their WASA appointees: “How’s the water operations?”

It is their duty, after all, to ask both the obvious and hard questions.

The water issue is certain to abate, as these matters inevitably do.

This or that finding will be made public, this or that person will express the proper amount of conviction, and even the gasbags in Congress could decide to go wading in the troubled waters.

Mostly, though, the lead scare will recede from view, supplanted by new items of concern.

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