4-Month Probe Cites Disarray Within WASA
Communication Failures Hurt Response to High Lead Levels
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2004; Page A01
Communication breakdowns and internal conflicts at the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority kept senior managers from promptly detecting and properly disclosing lead contamination problems in the drinking water, according to an independent report commissioned by the utility.
The report, written under the direction of former U.S. deputy attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., concludes that the agency's water quality division was in disarray as excessive levels of lead began to appear in the drinking water at some District homes.
The four-month investigation found that personality conflicts between staff members, in part attributable to alleged irregularities in the way WASA was conducting its water sampling, led to a previously undisclosed probe of the lead monitoring program two years ago. That probe, by the D.C. inspector general and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, found no wrongdoing.
The report says senior WASA managers played down initial findings of excessive lead levels in 2002 and did not acknowledge the severity of the problem until December 2003, after the agency's engineering department had produced results of thousands of new water tests. Even then, General Manager Jerry N. Johnson and his deputy, Michael S. Marcotte, failed to tell the agency's board, city officials and the public about the full scope of the lead contamination, the report says.
Furthermore, "failures of communication within WASA impeded WASA's and the Board's ability to process and respond to information in a timely and effective fashion," the report states.
WASA board members told investigators for Holder's law firm, Covington & Burling, that Johnson and Marcotte were effective executives but "tended to provide information to the Board very late, and even then only in a 'packaged' format," according to the report.
Board Chairman Glenn S. Gerstell and Holder have scheduled a news conference at 11 a.m. today to release the report. The Washington Post obtained a copy yesterday from a source on condition of anonymity.
The report says that WASA had undertaken a massive testing program in 2003, which found that more than 4,000 homes had water with lead levels above the federal limit, but that "key WASA personnel, as well as the Board and members of the District government, were not aware of the results" until a Washington Post article Jan. 31. "This delay and lack of communication is wholly unacceptable," the report concludes.
The 143-page, $75,000 report, requested by WASA's board of directors, also criticizes the EPA, the D.C. Department of Health and the Washington Aqueduct, which is operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, for failing to keep the public informed of the extent of the lead problem and the possible health risks.
Those agencies often gave WASA conflicting advice or failed to respond to the agency's request for guidance, the report says.
"The other agencies involved . . . had a muted response . . . and, along with other governmental entities, missed opportunities to confront these issues earlier," the report says.
The report's 18 recommendations to improve internal and external communication include: assigning responsibility for compliance with EPA rules to a senior manager; appointing a liaison to deal with the city's Health Department; creating a task force to address public health concerns whenever an EPA action level is exceeded; and bringing on a board member with engineering experience.
"There's no question it's critical of WASA and clear that WASA's staff made a number of mistakes and misjudgments and there was poor supervision over some employees," Gerstell said yesterday of the report. "The result was that the public was not timely informed about this problem. For me as chairman, that's completely unacceptable."
Gerstell also faulted the EPA, the Health Department and the Army Corps. "All were very complicit in the series of problems," he said.
In a written statement, EPA spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman said that "accurate reporting by WASA would have triggered earlier efforts to correct problems in DC water."
The Covington & Burling report follows other criticism of WASA's management of the lead contamination problems. The EPA ruled last month that WASA violated the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in six categories and cited several problems in the way the agency disclosed the problem to the public. In April, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) released 14 recommendations after a review by a city task force.
Last month, Washington Aqueduct officials started treating the water in part of the distribution system with a chemical that they hope will coat lead pipes and fixtures and stem the leaching. An expansion of the treatment to the entire system is planned for Aug. 9.
The Covington & Burling report deals with both the period before WASA officially reported excessive lead problems to the EPA in August 2002 and the aftermath.
The first section sheds new light on how WASA and the EPA allegedly mishandled information that could have revealed a lead problem a year earlier.
In 2001, WASA's water quality manager, Seema S. Bhat, sent an e-mail informing her superiors and her EPA liaison, George Rizzo, that an initial round of tests during the 2000-01 sampling period showed that WASA had exceeded the lead action level.
Bhat then retested several houses and substituted some results, after which WASA declared itself in compliance with EPA rules.
Substituting lead test results without federal permission is against the law. Bhat has said Rizzo approved her actions, but the EPA disputes her assertion. Holder's team said it found no evidence that the EPA signed off on Bhat's actions.
Bhat later fired an aide, Jerome Krough, who responded by telling the D.C. inspector general that he believed that Bhat had improperly invalidated test results.
The D.C. inspector general enlisted the help of the EPA's inspector general and launched an investigation, the Holder report states. After more than a year, however, the investigation was closed in December 2002 with no finding of fault. Last month, the EPA ruled that WASA had improperly invalidated several tests.
Marcotte and Kofi Boateng, Bhat's direct supervisor, have said that Bhat, who was fired in 2003, did not fully inform them about the excessive levels of lead in the water in 2001. They were informed by August 2002, when they notified the EPA that WASA exceeded the lead level in the 2001-02 testing period.
In the second section of the report, Holder's team confirms findings by EPA investigators that WASA avoided using some federally mandated language in brochures and public service announcements about the lead problem.
But the report also blames the EPA for giving WASA conflicting guidance and signing off on many steps the agency took to inform the public and solve the lead problem.
As for the D.C. Department of Health, which WASA's Johnson asked for assistance, the report says that "these requests for help were met with slow response time from DOH or were not met with any response at all."
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