- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

A D.C.-based law firm yesterday filed an intent to sue notice against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, accusing the agencies of failing to keep city residents properly notified about high levels of lead in the District’s tap water.

The announcement came as the same firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker filed a separate class-action lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court against the District government and the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority based on similar accusations.

Christopher Cole, a lead attorney in the case, said D.C. residents Amy Harding-Wright and Ellen Shaw and their families approached him to be plaintiffs in the case because he lives in the same Capitol Hill neighborhood. Also named as a plaintiff is Hill East Inc., a community activist group.

Attorneys said the lawsuit filed against WASA and the city government yesterday seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages on behalf of all residents affected by lead contamination problems, including those with health troubles and others whose property values have reportedly declined.

Mr. Cole said it was too early to say how much the suit could cost the city government or WASA or whether taxpayers would end up footing the bill of a costly legal settlement that could range in the tens of millions of dollars.

“The availability of insurance coverage for this is an open question,” Mr. Cole said.

Tony Bullock, a spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams, yesterday likened filing the lawsuit to “suing your neighbor.”

“There is no magic cash machine in the sky that is going to provide the funds for any court-awarded settlement,” Mr. Bullock said. “It’s going to be WASA rate payers and District taxpayers .”

The law firm filed yesterday’s suit on behalf of two Capitol Hill families with infants who live in homes that have tested for high levels of lead in the tap water. In a separate pleading yesterday, the firm also filed a 60-day notice of intent to sue naming WASA, the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers as defendants.

The Army Corps oversees the Washington Aqueduct, which supplies drinking water to the city.

Mr. Cole said class-action lawsuits, which could represent thousands of plaintiffs, also seek money for individuals forced to use large amounts of water due to recommendations from WASA to flush their pipes.

Mr. Cole said his clients have not shown signs of health problems. Mrs. Wright said WASA officials tested her home’s tap water last fall. However, she said the family did not find out until last month that their water had a lead level of 435 parts per billion. The federal limit is 15 ppb.

WASA and Army Corps officials yesterday declined to comment on the case. EPA officials said they had not seen the lawsuit, but defended their agency’s performance.

“We’re focused and we’re actively working with WASA and the city to find a solution,” said EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman.

Mr. Cole accused WASA officials of lying about the quality of the city’s water supply in the agency’s annual water-quality report.

D.C. officials say the 23,000 D.C. homes with lead service lines will have filters within 30 days, per EPA recommendations. However, Mr. Cole said the Brita filters are not guaranteed for homes with lead levels of 150 ppb or higher.

Vicki Friedman, spokeswoman for Brita, said the filter manufacturer is still testing whether its devices can effectively screen lead from water with lead levels above 150 ppb.

Jim Myers, of Hill East Inc., said yesterday that his neighborhood has had its share of lead problems. “On eastern Capitol Hill, we’ve had a lead problem for a long time,” Mr. Myers said. “If bullets didn’t get you in the 1980s and ‘90s, then the water will in the 21st century.”

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