- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2004

A Virginia Tech scientist who has studied the problem of lead contamination in the District’s water yesterday told a House committee that a costly effort to replace lead service lines could result in higher levels of the metal in drinking water.

His comments, before the House Committee on Government Reform, came during a nearly four-hour oversight hearing where members of Congress rebuked officials from the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Representatives of those agencies struggled to defend their decisions about notifying the public after discovering elevated lead levels in the city’s water two years ago.

“At times they seemed like deer caught in the headlights,” Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, said after the hearing. “We have a very serious problem that we have to address immediately. It’s worse than what I thought.”

Marc Edwards, a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech, said his studies have shown that changing the way water is treated created a corrosive chemical that leaches lead from service lines. In November 2000, the Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the Washington Aqueduct, altered its treatment formula from chlorine to chloramine, a chlorine-and-ammonia compound.

Mr. Edwards said even as WASA attempts to replace lead service lines thought to be the root of the problem, newly installed copper lines also could react with the chloramine.

“The brand-new copper drives corrosion of the old lead, and it’s very likely that replacing part of the lead service line is going to increase lead levels, not make them better,” Mr. Edwards said. “We can spend $351 million to replace all of WASA’s lead service lines and leave this problem worse than it was.”

He said wider testing is needed because chloramine has a similar effect on brass, commonly used in plumbing in new homes and apartment buildings. Mr. Edwards said even brass meeting lead-free requirements established by the Safe Drinking Water Act can contain up to 8 percent lead. This could explain why homes in the District and Arlington County that have no lead service lines have shown elevated lead levels.

But Thomas Jacobus, chief of the Washington Aqueduct, said the level of corrosion didn’t appear to change in tests taken after the water was treated with chloramine. He believes chloramine can remain in place and corroding inhibitors can be added to lower the corrosive ability of the water and prevent the leaching of lead.

Mr. Edwards disagreed, saying returning to chlorine water treatment may be less dangerous than using chloramine. He said for the time being, water filters should be effective in screening the vast majority of homes.

At a separate news conference yesterday, D.C. City Administrator Robert Bobb said the 23,000 D.C. homes with lead service lines will have filters within 30 days, per EPA recommendations.

Meanwhile, D.C. Department of Health officials said yesterday another person tested positive for lead exposure over the past week. A blood sample taken from a 2-year-old showed lead levels of 23 micrograms per deciliter — more than double the federal safety standard.

Earlier in the week five residents tested at D.C. General Hospital had high amounts of lead in their blood, including two 2-year-olds.

Jim McElhatton contributed to this article.

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