- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

Some D.C. residents were drinking tap water with high lead levels for as long as a year while the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) delayed reporting test results because it had no clear policy on notifying officials or the public about the problem, according to a city audit released yesterday.

In a sharply critical report, the D.C. Office of the Inspector General said WASA failed to take and report accurate water samples, noting discrepancies between the results that WASA reported to federal environmental regulators and the results in WASA’s own reports.

Moreover, WASA waited three months after notifying the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about the lead problem in August 2002 before contacting the D.C. Department of Health (DOH), the audit found.

“WASA officials did not timely notify the Department of Health regarding the issue of lead in the District’s drinking water,” states the 77-page report issued by interim Inspector General Austin A. Andersen.

“Further, DOH officials stated notification was made in a manner that was interpreted as having a low priority, with little cause for action or alarm.”

WASA came under intense scrutiny last year after city residents learned about tests suggesting lead contamination in the city’s tap water.

Of 6,118 water samples taken during the summer of 2003, more than 4,000 contained lead levels above the safe range of 15 parts per billion, according to court documents filed by two city residents against WASA last year. About 23,000 of WASA’s 130,000 service lines contained lead.

Since then, the Washington Aqueduct, a division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has altered the chemicals used to treat tap water in an effort to reduce lead leaching. The agency also has begun a multimillion-dollar project to replace the city’s lead-lined water pipes.

The inspector general’s report said other factors could have contributed to the high lead levels, including poor maintenance of the city’s water supply system.

Pipelines are supposed to be flushed each year by opening up fire hydrants to remove any buildup, but the District has not employed a consistent or regimented flushing program, according to the audit.

WASA spokeswoman Karen DeWitt yesterday said the agency has fixed many of problems highlighted in the audit.

Ms. DeWitt responded to questions about the audit by referring to a written response to the inspector general from WASA General Manager Jerry Johnson last month.

In the Dec. 6 letter, Mr. Johnson said WASA has taken steps to “fully address the requirements of the law” and other measures that “go well beyond the requirements” to keep customers informed.

He said WASA has distributed more than 34,000 filters, is working to replace all of the city’s lead-lined pipes and has undergone at least eight separate audits or reviews by federal and local authorities.

However, the inspector general’s report says WASA needs to do more work, including making sure that areas with the highest lead levels are the first to get service line replacements.

In 2003, WASA said it did not always prioritize its lead-replacement schedule according to the areas with the highest lead levels, the audit states.

“WASA officials admitted that they were ‘under the gun’ to meet the replacement requirements and may not have addressed the highest lead levels and the most vulnerable populations,” the inspector general’s report states.

Auditors also said WASA “is on the right track” to replace all lead-lined service pipes by 2010, giving priority to known addresses. The project is expected to cost about $300 million.

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