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Report by D.C. Council Panel Urges City Oversight of Water

Some Proposals Similar to Those of Appleseed Center Study

By Debbi Wilgoren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page B04

A D.C. Council committee report echoes recommendations that the city should assume the federal government's responsibility for regulating D.C. drinking water, and it suggests annual lead testing for water in District schools and day-care centers.

The report, approved Monday by members of the D.C. Council's Committee on Public Works and the Environment, also calls for an agreement on procedures for dealing with unsafe water to be negotiated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and the D.C. Department of Health. It says the water authority should assign one senior person to ensure that drinking water is safe -- a responsibility now shared by various individuals and agencies.

Council member Carol Schwartz faults EPA oversight of WASA, and WASA's slowness to release information, for worsening drinking water problems. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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Committee Chairman Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said she would propose legislation to implement some of the recommendations and would press privately and at public hearings for federal, school and other officials to make changes that are beyond the council's control.

Several recommendations parallel those in a report released this month by the DC Appleseed Center. That report, commissioned by Schwartz's committee after the disclosure early this year that thousands of D.C. homes had contaminated water, said the District should toughen its standards and take on oversight of water safety.

Each report blames poor enforcement by the federal government and lax response by the Water and Sewer Authority for the problems that surfaced in the District.

"This crisis could have been minimized if EPA had properly exercised its oversight over WASA, and if WASA had been appropriately forthcoming with information," Schwartz wrote in the committee report.

Every state except Wyoming oversees its own water safety. Although the District has sought that authority in the past without success, EPA officials recently have said they would be open to the possibility.

City Administrator Robert C. Bobb has expressed support for creating a local environmental agency but has not specified what it would control.

Johnnie Hemphill, a governmental affairs assistant to WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson, said he had not seen the committee report and could not comment on its specifics.

"We would really want an opportunity to look at it and review it in context," Hemphill said. "We've looked at every report that has come out, and there have been several. We take all of them very seriously."

Schwartz said she has received some preliminary support for her recommendations from WASA. She noted that a few initiatives outlined in the report are progressing, such as ensuring that people nominated to the WASA board by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) have expertise in public health and safety, and negotiating the federal-local agreement on how to deal with safety violations.

Other recommendations include creating an office within WASA to replace lead pipes -- a citywide project that will take at least six years and is outsourced to a private contractor.

Schwartz said the city could save money by running that program itself.

The committee's report includes summaries of 11 public hearings on the lead problems conducted by Schwartz's committee between February and September, as well as records of all of WASA's actions in response to the crisis and many other memos on and examinations of the problems.

"It's the entire record, as well as specific recommendations," Schwartz said. "There's nowhere else in the country that's ever had an experience like this. I hope it will be helpful to ourselves, historically . . . or for anyone else who has to go through this experience."

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