The District's Water and Sewer Authority should enter into a formal agreement with the Health Department to avoid the kind of communication problems associated with WASA's disclosure of lead contamination of tap water last year, according to a report released this week.
That was one of 12 recommendations made by Austin A. Andersen, the city's interim inspector general, in a wide-ranging analysis of WASA's performance after tests showed excessive lead in tap water in thousands of homes.
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Last month, a D.C. Council committee headed by Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) made a similar recommendation, saying a working agreement should be negotiated among WASA, the Health Department and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Andersen's report said WASA attempted to notify residents of lead contamination but failed to include required information or convey a sense of urgency. The inspector general was more critical of WASA's interaction with the Health Department about the lead problems.
"WASA officials did not timely notify the Department of Health regarding the issue of lead," Andersen wrote. "DOH officials stated notification was made in a manner that was interpreted as having a low priority, with little cause for alarm or action. . . . WASA officials disagree with DOH's characterizations."
In a written response to Andersen's findings, WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson rejected the need for a written agreement, known as a memorandum of understanding, with the Health Department.
"WASA concurs with the view that a positive and continuing exchange of information among the many professionals at DOH and WASA must be routine, consistent and effective, but does not agree that [a memorandum of understanding] is necessary to ensure effective cooperation," Johnson wrote. "The current relationship with DOH is vastly improved, and reflects a more creative and flexible partnership."
Health Director Gregg A. Pane said he has no problem with Andersen's recommendation.
"It makes sense to me, but if WASA does not want to do it, we can work toward the same end without one," Pane said. "We've already made a lot of progress. Our staff and theirs have good communication. I don't think you'll see any lead-in-the-waters repeated."
Erik Olson, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said WASA should agree to create a written document with the Health Department that spells out how the two agencies are expected to interact and share information and test results.
"This is just one more example of how public health is at the bottom of the list for WASA," Olson said. "They don't even want to have a written agreement with the Health Department in our own city? It's inexcusable."
Anderson's report is the fifth to have been issued on the lead crisis, including the D.C. Council's study.
The EPA found that WASA violated federal law by failing to include mandatory language about the lead problems in mailings to customers. A law firm hired by WASA's Board of Directors concluded that internal communication problems kept senior managers from promptly detecting the severity of the lead contamination.
The DC Appleseed Center, a public interest group, recommended in its report last month that the District assume the federal government's responsibility for regulating drinking water and create a Department of Environmental Protection to oversee water protection.
Andersen also found that WASA has made a number of changes to improve its reporting and public communication, as well as to try to fix the lead problem. Johnson has hired a toxicology team from George Washington University to advise the agency on health matters, and WASA is in the process of replacing all 23,000 lead service pipes by 2010 at a cost of $300 million. In addition, Johnson said he intends to create a job at WASA to make certain that submissions to the EPA are legally sufficient and timely.
The Washington Aqueduct has added a chemical to the water distribution system that engineers believe will stem the leeching.