Skepticism as Massive Lead Pipe Repair Project Nears
In Smaller-Scale Effort, D.C. Residents Find Missteps, Delays
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 21, 2004; Page B01
The crew that replaced lead service pipes along one block on Capitol Hill three months ago left behind an unwelcome present for Richard Longstaff and his neighbors: piles of bricks that had been ripped from the sidewalk.
Longstaff figured that someone representing the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority would be back to finish the job outside his home in the 100 block of 13th Street SE. Instead, a public works inspector who noticed the bricks issued him a $35 fine for "failure to maintain abutting public space in a clean condition." Now, Longstaff has a July court date to fight the ticket.
"This is crazy," he said on a recent day, the bricks still stacked on both sides of the street. "I used to live in the former Soviet Union for seven years. This reminds me of that."
Stray bricks aren't the only problem reported by residents who have had their lead lines replaced. They say workers have dug up their yards without permission, come more than once to rip up streets and curbs for the same service line and failed to communicate clearly about when they were coming and what they were doing.
Meanwhile, WASA's massive and wider-reaching pipe replacement project has not begun.
Concerned about high lead levels found in the drinking water of thousands of homes, WASA's board of directors will vote July 1 on a plan to replace the city's estimated 23,000 lead service lines by 2010, at a cost of more than $350 million.
The project would be the most ambitious replacement program ever attempted in the nation, water quality experts said, dwarfing the one in Madison, Wis., where about 600 lead lines are being replaced each year. In the District, the plan would require adding a significant number of contractors, closing streets for weeks at a time and coordinating WASA contractors with other city agencies such as the Department of Transportation.
Some residents fear that the plan would spawn massive disruptions and logistical breakdowns, based on the performance of WASA contractors this year.
"To get the [lead] line out is great, but the way it's handled is just abysmal," said Satu Haase-Webb of the 1300 block of A Street SE in Capitol Hill.
Workers came once in March, then returned last week to replace different sections of the pipes, she said. They will come a third time before the end of the year to finish replacing the pipes on her property, she said. On a typical replacement, workers dig as deep as four or five feet, contractors said, and the lead lines run from below the street, under the yard and into the house.
"It is just unbelievably uncoordinated," Haase-Webb said. "I told them, 'Please, I beg of you, I implore you, don't dig twice.' "
Because of the logistical hurdles, WASA officials have debated just how ambitious they should be. Staff members recommended extending the replacement timetable to nine years. But Board Chairman Glenn S. Gerstell favors the six-year plan.
"I have no problem setting an ambitious goal and reassessing in a couple of years," he said. "If it turns out to be overly ambitious . . . then we can change course at that time."
WASA's chief engineer, Michael Marcotte, who has resigned effective July 9, said the six-year plan "is doable, but the nine years is a more workable plan."
D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who supports removing the lead service lines, said WASA should coordinate the program to ensure that there is just "one dig" at each residence.
Asked about WASA's six-year timetable, Schwartz said, "If we wanted to slow it down a little bit, I would find that understandable."
Under federal regulations that govern water systems exceeding the lead action level, WASA has been required to replace 7 percent of its lead lines, about 1,615, for each of the past two years. In the first year of the program, however, the agency used a loophole in federal law to avoid replacing about 1,200 lines.
This year, under pressure from city officials and federal regulators, WASA has agreed to replace more than 1,800 lines, General Manager Jerry N. Johnson said. But as WASA contractors scramble to meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Sept. 30 compliance deadline, their approach has angered residents.
Mindy Boyagian, who lives across 13th Street from Longstaff, said she brought her newborn son home from the hospital on the day work crews began replacing the service lines in March.
"It was a disaster," she said. "They were jack-hammering for three weeks."
Douglas Neumann, who lives on 44th Street NW in Foxhall Village, was so frustrated that he wrote about his experience in a newsletter published by the Web site dcwatch.com.
"I arrived home after work to find that a large hole had been dug in my front yard and my carefully tended perennial garden destroyed," Neumann wrote.
In an interview, Neumann said he would have preferred to keep his garden unharmed even if it meant having the lead service line remain in place.
Mike Whitehead, a manager at C&F Construction, one of two contractors replacing lines for WASA, said the company's contract calls for it to return streets, curbs, sidewalks, walkways, gardens and lawns to their original condition. The lead pipes are not removed from the ground. Rather, the lead pipes are disconnected and a new copper pipe is laid near it and connected to the main and to the pipes in the home.
Whitehead acknowledged that his crews are working fast to meet the federal deadline and may leave some repair work for later.
WASA's Marcotte said the agency has had some setbacks this year that were beyond its control.
For example, the D.C. Department of Health ordered WASA to temporarily stop cutting into lead pipes because tests had revealed that the procedure caused particles of lead to fall into the water and increase lead levels. After additional tests showed that the problem was mitigated if the lines were thoroughly flushed, the moratorium was lifted, Marcotte said. WASA had to send its contractors back to many streets where they had not finished replacing the pipes in public space.
Perhaps the most comparable lead service line replacement program underway in the nation is in Madison. David Denig-Chakroff, director of the city's water utility, said the agency gives residents two notices before beginning the work. City law requires homeowners to replace the private section of each line at a reduced cost at the same time crews replace the pipes in public space.
Denig-Chakroff said workers use a device that limits the amount of digging in front of each house by shooting a tube underground, in order to make a hole for the new copper service line. WASA uses this tool at times, Marcotte said, but it can create problems around electrical lines or cable television connections.
Asked whether he thought the District's plan to replace thousands of service lines a year was manageable, Denig-Chakroff said: "It does seem like a pretty big undertaking. . . . It magnifies all of the coordination problems we faced."
WASA officials pledged to give customers significant notice before work is done on their streets. The agency is considering appointing a project manager specifically to oversee the lead line replacement program. And officials are working with a bank to provide loans to homeowners who cannot afford to replace the private portions of the lines.
On Friday, Longstaff said, contractors had finally returned. They collected the bricks and told him they would be back at a future date to do more digging before putting the bricks back in the sidewalk, he said.
"If they do everyone else the way they did us," Longstaff said of WASA, "they're going to have problems, maybe even some lawsuits."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company