- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2004

High levels of metal found in the Washington Aqueduct are a potential source of lead contamination and should be scrutinized for any links to lead found in drinking water in the District and some Arlington County homes, critics said yesterday.

“We know there is more lead in the basin than they admit. Whether these contaminants are entering the distribution system, we don’t know,” said Rob Gordon, executive director of the Washington-based National Wilderness Institute (NWI).

The Washington Times first reported in June 2002 that large amounts of lead, arsenic, mercury, chromium, copper, zinc, nickel and selenium were discovered when NWI tested waste byproducts, or sludge, from the aqueduct.

The Environmental Protection Agency warned as early as 1996 that accumulation of sludge in the aqueduct basin could pose a “health risk.” Sludge testing by the EPA in October 2002 also detected arsenic, copper, nickel and zinc at levels 10 times greater than reported by the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the aqueduct.

Rep. Richard W. Pombo, California Republican and chairman of the House Resources Committee, yesterday called for greater scrutiny of the aqueduct, saying that for more than a decade the facility has been allowed to “operate with callous disregard for the Endangered Species Act.”

“Now we are talking about more than just Potomac fish, we are talking about people,” Mr. Pombo said.

A 1994 Corps test of concentrated sludge showed lead at 20,000 parts per billion (ppb) and also detected arsenic, chromium, copper, nickel, zinc and other contaminants.

The Corps recorded in 2001 that sludge resting in the water holding tanks contained lead levels of 10 ppb. However, the previous report filed in 1989 showed 1,750 ppb.

“That’s not physically possible, it’s voodoo,” said Mr. Gordon, whose group uncovered these and other reports as part of a lawsuit against the Corps for violating the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.

Tom Jacobus, chief of the Washington Aqueduct, said the water is tested in-house at least once a month, and that the facility was not the source of the lead. He provided a report showing that lead levels of “finished water” in 2003 never rose above 1.4 ppb, while the EPA benchmark for drinking water is 15 ppb.

Mr. Jacobus said Mr. Gordon is “intent on misaligning the facts.”

“What he is saying is absolutely untrue,” Mr. Jacobus said. “You can’t say ‘zero,’ but from a practical point of view there is no lead [in the water] when it leaves the treatment plant.”

A recent sampling of eight homes in Arlington County revealed that five had elevated levels of lead. None of the homes had lead service lines. Arlington County, Falls Church and Vienna, Va., also get their water from the Washington Aqueduct.

Randy Bartlett, Arlington County’s director of infrastructure, said he doesn’t believe the facility is the source of the metal. The county began taking samples at schools and water distribution plants yesterday and tests should be completed late next week.

“I have full confidence in what the aqueduct does,” Mr. Bartlett said.

Robert Etris, director of public utilities in Falls Church, said city officials tested 15 homes last week. He said none of the samples revealed high levels of lead. “We have a clean bill of health,” he said of the water supply.

In Vienna, Dennis King, superintendent of the town’s public works department, said tests in June did not reveal high levels of lead or any other metals.

Unlike Arlington and Falls Church, whose water is tested by the Washington Aqueduct’s lab in the District, Vienna sends its water samples to the Virginia Department of Health in Richmond to be analyzed, Mr. King said.

Samples taken at more than 4,000 homes in the District since 2002 have found lead levels well above the safe range of 15 ppb established by the EPA.

Prior to the disclosure from Arlington County, D.C. officials suspected lead service lines were the culprit — 23,000 of D.C. Water and Sewer Authority’s 130,000 service lines contain lead.

Officials also speculate that a change in the chemicals used to treat water in November 2000 could have made it more corrosive, causing leaching from pipes or fixtures that could even have affected homes without lead service lines. However, there have been no studies to indicate this is the cause.

“By deductive reasoning, if the lead is not coming from the pipes, it could be coming from the aqueduct, and it seems there is no shortage of lead at the aqueduct,” said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for the House Resources Committee.

Jim McElhatton contributed to this report.

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