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Coalition Calls Effort On Lead A Failure

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2005; Page B03

A year after D.C. residents learned that drinking water in thousands of homes had excessive lead levels, a coalition of advocates said yesterday that local and federal leaders have done too little to fix the problem and that some of them should be fired.

"D.C. and federal officials have fallen down on the job," said Erik D. Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "A year later, the water still is not safe for thousands of District residents."

Activists Carol Phelps, left, Amy Jiron and Mary Williams grade WASA's manager for his work on the lead problem. (Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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Lead Emergency Action for the District, a coalition of environmental and health advocates and D.C. residents, called a news conference at the John A. Wilson Building to publicize a report card on government performance and to demand changes they said would ensure greater water safety.

Some D.C. and federal officials had known since at least 2002 that drinking water in some homes had excessive lead levels, but the public learned about it only last January from media reports. Since then, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority has distributed thousands of water filters and begun a massive lead-pipe replacement program. Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers, which operates the city's two water treatment plants, began adding a phosphate chemical that is supposed to reduce leeching from pipes, but officials said it's too early to know whether it will succeed in cutting lead levels below federal action limits.

The coalition was most critical of top officials of WASA and the Corps of Engineers. But the group also had harsh words for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) -- Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Mary Williams criticized his "non-appearance on this issue" -- as well as federal environmental officials and some members of Congress.

The coalition's demands included top-to-bottom management changes at WASA, an independent expert study of needed improvements to the water system, stronger federal and city lead laws and more aggressive action against the city from the Environmental Protection Agency.

"No more slaps on the wrist," Olson said. "We want fines and a criminal review."

Furthermore, said Paul Schwartz of Clean Water Action, officials are not aggressively reminding people they need to filter their water until lead levels come down. "WASA and the mayor's office are saying everything is under control," he said.

Some officials conceded that they could have acted more quickly before the lead problem came to public attention, but representatives of WASA, the EPA and the Corps of Engineers said they have done all they can since then.

Glenn Gerstell, WASA board chairman, said that several management and board jobs have changed hands and that WASA has moved aggressively to fix "some missteps," including implementing a lead-pipe replacement program. "We've really been active on all fronts since this emerged," he said.

"An enormous amount has been accomplished this year for the amount of time we've had to do it," said Rick Rogers, the top water quality official in EPA's regional office.

Jon Capacasa, another top EPA official, said agency officials do not comment on whether criminal investigations are underway. He said the EPA would have had to go to court to seek fines, and agency officials preferred the quicker route of working out administrative orders with WASA officials.

Thomas Jacobus of the Corps of Engineers said poor communication among agencies delayed a recognition of the lead problem, but since last year, "we have worked extremely well to react to the problem."

Among public officials, the only A grades went to Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), both of whom have criticized the EPA and local officials and sponsored legislation to tighten the law regulating lead in drinking water. D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) got a B-minus, which the coalition said reflected her strong response to the lead crisis but also her failure to oversee the water utility aggressively before last year. U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) received a B for holding hearings after the crisis broke, but he was criticized for not sponsoring legislation to rewrite the lead law.

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