Justice for Seema Bhat

Sunday, November 6, 2005

LIFE CAN BE hard for a whistle-blower when an agency against the ropes chooses to lash out with a personal attack. That was the predicament in which Seema S. Bhat, water quality manager for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, found herself after she warned the Environmental Protection Agency in 2002 about excessive lead in the tap water of the nation's capital.

WASA fired Ms. Bhat in 2003. Officials claimed the cause was that she was rude to superiors and had failed to inform them of key findings, not that she reported lead contamination to the EPA. But WASA's account was, according to administrative law judge Stuart A. Levin, who reviewed the case, at variance with the facts. Ms. Bhat was terminated, the judge ruled, "not because she incurred the displeasure of her supervisor over the abrasive tone she exhibited toward him and others . . . she was fired because she engaged in activities protected by" the Safe Drinking Water Act. Last week, in a smashing victory for the lone individual who stood up to her bosses on behalf of District residents and the law, Ms. Bhat was ordered reinstated and awarded damages running into tens of thousands of dollars.

Even with $50,000 in compensatory damages, $10,000 in exemplary damages, back pay based on her $73,000 annual salary, benefits, interest and attorney fees and court costs, it's an open question whether WASA is ponying up enough for the wrongs it committed. Ms. Bhat has been out of a job since she was fired because it's hard to find work when you have skills in a specialized field and have been publicly terminated. What's more, WASA managers played down initial findings of excessive lead levels in 2002, according to an independent report ordered by the utility, even as lead was in fact seeping into drinking water affecting thousands of District homes. Who at WASA is being held accountable for that? Has there been a thorough housecleaning at the agency in light of that independent finding?

Post writer David Nakamura reports that the two men who recommended Ms. Bhat's termination -- Kofi Boateng, her supervisor, and Michael A. Marcotte, WASA's deputy general manager -- are no longer with the agency. That might make it easier for Ms. Bhat to return to WASA, where she worked for four years and held a job that she said she loved. Under strict federal oversight, WASA brought lead levels below the federal action level last spring. It took a public outcry to bring about such needed scrutiny of WASA. The agency's next critical step is to assemble a workforce filled with diligent and dedicated managers such as Ms. Bhat. Such changes, we hope, will help keep WASA out of hot water and on the right side of the rules.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company