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D.C. Regulation of Tap Water Urged

Public Interest Group Criticizes Federal Law, Pace of Pipe Replacement

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 8, 2004; Page B01

The District should take over the federal government's responsibility for regulating city tap water and replace lead plumbing more swiftly in thousands of homes, according to a report commissioned by the D.C. Council that sharply criticized city response to its long-running lead problem.

The report by the D.C. Appleseed Center, to be released today, said the federal law on lead in drinking water is too weak to protect public health. It urged the Environmental Protection Agency to strengthen it and said the city should impose its own tougher standards.

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The Appleseed report is among several studies prompted by the disclosure this year that lead levels in the tap water of thousands of city homes exceeded federal standards and that officials stalled in informing the public. Lead is especially harmful to the development of babies and young children.

The Army Corps of Engineers treats the water, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority delivers it through its pipes, and the EPA oversees quality -- a system that ensures that no one is fully accountable, the report said. The city needs to assume that authority, it said, and tighten water-quality standards.

"Someone needs to come up with a better rule, a better system, for protecting the public here," said Walter Smith, executive director of Appleseed, a public interest group. "I see it primarily as an opportunity for the District to get its own house in order and lead the nation in doing the right thing."

The report recommended that the city create a Department of Environmental Protection to oversee water regulation and urged WASA to take over management of the Corps of Engineers' two treatment plants.

It also urged WASA to accelerate by a year its six-year program to replace lead pipes on public property. It said WASA should require replacement of lead lines on private property; WASA now offers homeowners the option of paying for the work only if they want it done.

For the city to regulate its drinking water, as all states but Wyoming do, it must prove its ability to the EPA. Agency officials say they are open to the idea. City Administrator Robert C. Bobb supports creation of an environmental agency but has not decided on its scope, officials said.

Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), chair of the D.C. Council Committee on Public Works and the Environment, said she was pleased with the scope of the report, which she commissioned. She said she agrees that the city should regulate its water through a new agency but said she has not made up her mind on a proposed takeover of the treatment plants.

That would require agreement from the Corps of Engineers and from the plants' Northern Virginia customers as well as possible compensation for the Army's property. Thomas Jacobus, chief of the treatment plants, said that he had not seen the Appleseed report but that "we believe the current organization is sound."

The chairman of WASA's board of directors, Glenn Gerstell, said the utility has undertaken several recommended initiatives. He said the lead-pipe replacement program cannot be accelerated much more without ripping up too much of the city at once.

Gerstell said the utility is "happy to be regulated at the federal or local level" and said he did not have the technical expertise to comment on proposed changes to water-quality standards.

Lead contamination problems in the District and other cities have prompted demands from environmentalists and some members of Congress for tighter federal standards. The report said that current testing regulations invite abuse and that the EPA does not adequately enforce them.

Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), who has sponsored a bill to tighten the federal drinking-water law, issued a statement praising "this very important report" pointing out "flaws not only with the District of Columbia's drinking water system, but with federal regulations and oversight as well."

The EPA's assistant administrator for water, Benjamin Grumbles, said his agency continues to review the law's adequacy to protect public health. "I continue to believe it's been successful, but we want to make it even more successful," he said.

Staff writer Carol Leonnig contributed to this report.

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