washingtonpost.com  > Metro > The District > Government > Drinking Water

Davis Assails Water Agency On Lead Risk

Congressman Faults Delay In Alerting D.C. Residents

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 3, 2004; Page B01

U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va) said yesterday that he was concerned that District residents had been exposed to greater health risks because of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority's "lackluster approach" to notifying the public about lead contamination problems in the city's tap water.

Davis, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, which oversees the D.C. government, said he was "deeply troubled" by media reports that WASA did not begin notifying most homeowners until November about excessive lead levels found last summer. The water in more than 4,000 homes had lead concentrations in excess of the federal limit of 15 parts per billion.

Michael Joseph, 4, runs the water at the Georgetown home of his grandfather, Charles Eason. The lead contamination in the tap water there was measured at 36 times the federal limit of 15 parts per billion. (Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

_____From The Post_____
Experts Differ on Threat
Q&A: Lead Contamination

WASA "has delayed remediation of the problem and exposed the District of Columbia's residents to the risks of lead in their drinking water without their knowledge," Davis wrote in letters sent yesterday to WASA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

WASA's water hotline has been inundated with calls from anxious residents. The agency received more than 300 calls over the weekend and many more yesterday, spokesman Johnnie Hemphill said. When ingested, lead can damage the brain, nervous system, kidneys and red blood cells.

WASA will offer free water tests to residents whose homes have lead pipes and are considered at risk of contamination, Hemphill said. Officials said residents should call the agency's hotline, 202-787-2732, to determine if their homes are supplied by lead service lines.

"We will be responsive to those who have a genuine concern," Hemphill said.

City leaders continued to demand an explanation for the apparent delay in notifying residents and city officials about the magnitude of the problem. The D.C. Council scheduled a public hearing with WASA officials for 1 p.m. tomorrow at the John A. Wilson Building, 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), in his first public comments on the matter, accused WASA of failing to focus attention on "a very serious issue in our city."

WASA should have done a better job "getting out there preemptively and sorting rumor from fact," Williams said. "I did not know that we had hit this federal threshold. I found out . . . when I opened the paper up. I was not happy."

Because contamination has exceeded the federal limit, EPA guidelines require the agency to replace 7 percent of its lead pipes annually, which WASA officials said will cost $10 million to $20 million a year.

Homeowners are responsible for replacing lead pipes on private property, which could cost several thousand dollars.

The mayor said he is considering using money from the city's general fund to help WASA replace lead service lines and residents replace lead pipes on private property. WASA has about 23,000 lead service lines throughout the city.

WASA officials have said they followed EPA guidelines after learning of lead problems during random sampling of 53 homes in 2001 and 2002. WASA mailed homeowners a brochure about the dangers of lead and began replacing 7 percent of lead pipes each year, as required by the EPA.

Last summer, WASA expanded the testing program to include 6,118 residences, offering thousands of randomly selected residents $25 apiece to participate, WASA officials and residents said.

Mary Williams, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who lives in Southwest Washington, said she and many of her neighbors were offered the payments and many accepted.

Mary Williams agreed to give WASA a water sample in July but did not receive results until December -- and only after she called WASA to ask for them. Her water showed a lead level of 31 parts per billion, Williams said. A neighbor's water had a lead level of more than 500 parts per billion, according to information provided by WASA last week.

Mary Williams said WASA should have been more forthcoming with test results. "Immediate notification is paramount," she said. "That's what infuriates me. Let us make that decision about what to do to protect ourselves."

WASA officials say they do not know what is causing the high levels of contamination or how many homes are affected.

But Lucy Murray, who is on WASA's 11-member board of directors, said the agency had not done enough to inform residents.

"This is a classic case where WASA has just not figured out how to be proactive on this," Murray said. "I strongly believe you have to give people information the best you can. Most people understand if you don't have all the answers. We don't know everything, but we do know something is wrong. People have a right to know it."

WASA's board is scheduled to hold its regular monthly meeting at 9:30 a.m. today at the authority's headquarters at Blue Plains in Southwest Washington. After the meeting, officials said they will hold a news conference.

Paul McKay, who lives in Logan Circle in Northwest Washington, said he had no idea about the lead problems until hearing about it from a neighbor. He has a 3-month-old baby who has been drinking formula made with tap water.

"I was outraged and concerned no one knew about it," McKay said.

Satu Haase-Webb lives on Capitol Hill, where a group of young mothers has discussed the lead contamination on an Internet forum. Haase-Webb, whose water was found last summer to have 308 parts of lead per billion, said she wishes she had been told about the risks in 2002, when WASA first reported contamination problems to the EPA.

"Two years ago, I was pregnant. If I had known then, I could have put a water filter on," she said. "That's what I'm most outraged about."

Staff writer Craig Timberg contributed to this report.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company