Lawsuit Dropped Against WASA

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 8, 2005

A class-action lawsuit filed last year against the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority over its management of lead contamination has been dropped because the utility has taken adequate steps to improve water quality, the attorney for the two Capitol Hill families that filed the litigation said yesterday.

WASA officials said in a statement that the dropping of the suit was a clear sign that they had made progress in reducing the risk of lead in drinking water. They also said the lawsuit has cost more than $1 million to defend.

The suit, filed in D.C. Superior Court in March last year, claimed that utility officials knew that the drinking water had high lead levels in 2001 but failed to protect the public, which found out only in early 2004. The lawsuit sought damages on behalf of pregnant women, parents and property owners who have spent money for filters, lead pipe replacement and other costs.

In June 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency and WASA signed a consent agreement in which the utility agreed to take a variety of steps to address the high levels of lead found in thousands of D.C. homes. The WASA board later pledged to replace all the lead pipes on public property by 2010. The city's water treatment plants, run by the Army Corps of Engineers, are using a chemical intended to prevent lead from leaching off pipes.

Results so far are promising: A sample of household drinking water tests for the first six months of this year showed low lead levels. If tests for the rest of the year are equally good, the city water will be in compliance with EPA regulations.

WASA officials said yesterday that the cost of defending the utility against the lawsuit included expenses for outside lawyers and experts. They have filed an insurance claim, but spokeswoman Michelle Quander-Collins said the deductible is $1 million.

"It has been WASA's position all along that this is a regulatory issue and one that the authority is committed to aggressively address with good results for our customers and the general public," WASA's general manager, Jerry N. Johnson, said in a statement.

James E. Berger, a lawyer in the D.C. office of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, said he and his clients agreed voluntarily to drop the lawsuit late last month because it had achieved its goals.

"The purpose of the litigation was to improve the drinking water, and we think that's happened," he said. "We don't see any need to have private litigation that's going to cost them money. We'd rather spend that money on having them improve the drinking water."

The lawsuit was the first one brought against the utility since the lead contamination was disclosed, and utility attorneys had argued that it would impose excessive costs even as the problem was being addressed.

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