WASA Says EPA Was Told Of Lead
Report on Withholding Of Tests Contradicted
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 17, 2004; Page B01
D.C. Water and Sewer Authority General Manager Jerry N. Johnson maintained yesterday that the utility "fully and comprehensively communicated" with federal authorities about lead contamination problems in the drinking water, contradicting the findings of regulators last month.
Johnson's comments came in response to a 143-page report released yesterday that detailed communication breakdowns in WASA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies that prevented information about widespread lead problems from promptly and clearly reaching the public.
The report, Johnson said in a written statement, showed that WASA informed the EPA "about our water testing program and its findings. I am glad to see that [the report] shines a light on the fact that the EPA knew -- and in many cases endorsed -- what WASA was doing."
Johnson declined, through a spokeswoman, to be interviewed. His statement said he would review the report more thoroughly in the coming days.
Last month, WASA and the EPA signed a consent agreement in which federal regulators ruled that WASA had violated the Safe Drinking Water Act in six categories, including illegally withholding test results that could have revealed a lead contamination problem a year earlier. WASA officials did not admit or deny the violations in the agreement.
The report, commissioned by the WASA Board of Directors and written by Eric H. Holder Jr., former deputy U.S. attorney general, comes to similar conclusions. It states that WASA withheld test results from the EPA in the 2000-01 monitoring period that would have shown that the District's water exceeded federal lead limits. And the report confirmed findings by the EPA that WASA failed to include federally mandated language in brochures sent to residents to inform them of the lead contamination.
Holder's report stated that WASA officials withheld some information and changed federally mandated language in brochures to avoid panicking the public. The report also concluded that the EPA gave WASA conflicting advice and signed off on many decisions the utility made.
Jon M. Capacasa, water chief for the EPA regional office that oversees the District, disputed Johnson's statement that WASA had fully communicated with federal regulators. "In many instances, they did not follow the requirements," he said. "They had the prime and direct responsibility [to follow the law]. Blaming it on overseers is missing the point."
D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) called for Johnson to be fired.
"He's trying to put a good face on this, and the [WASA] board is letting him get away with it," Fenty said. "The Holder report finds that WASA basically intentionally kept information from the residents. That and the fact that they kept information from the board is grounds for firing. Anybody who doesn't think so is either not in tune [with] the frustrations of residents or they're culpable."
Others disagreed, saying several agencies bear responsibility for failing to recognize the severity of the lead problems and to communicate the health risks to the public. Although WASA formally notified the EPA that the city's drinking water had exceeded federal lead limits in 2002, many city officials and residents did not find out until media reports disclosed the problem in January, the Holder report found.
Holder said he believed communication problems did not represent a failure of an individual, but rather of several agencies. "It was an inadequate response by the system," Holder said. "There were not sufficient controls in place."
Holder's report found that Johnson and his deputy, Michael S. Marcotte, failed to tell WASA's board, city officials and residents about the scope of the lead problems even after thousands of water tests showed widespread contamination last fall. WASA Board Chairman Glenn S. Gerstell said he was disappointed by management's failure to keep the board informed, but he saw no reason to fire or discipline Johnson.
Gerstell noted that Johnson has taken several steps to improve the agency's communication with the public on health matters, including hiring a medical expert from George Washington University and a major public relations firm. In his written statement, Johnson questioned the effectiveness of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which governs how utilities test for those metals, disclose contamination to the public and stem leaching problems once they are identified.
"The District's experience has also convinced me that following the Lead and Copper Rule 100 percent does not prevent a situation like ours from developing, and that other communities could easily encounter very similar challenges," Johnson wrote.
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, which oversees District issues, said through a spokesman that federal rules were not to blame.
"If the regulations had actually been followed, this problem would have been identified, and solutions put into place, much, much sooner," Davis's spokesman, Robert White, said in an e-mail.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company