EPA Eases Monitoring of D.C. Drinking Water

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006; 5:15 PM

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has formally reduced its oversight of D.C. drinking water after new test results showed that the level of lead in the water has remained below federal limits for a full year.

Last week, the EPA certified the results submitted by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, EPA spokesman Roy Seneca said today.

WASA had announced in January that city water had met federal standards, but the EPA had requested more data after finding irregularities in 16 test samples. The new samples met the requirements, Seneca said, and the lead level in city water is 15 parts per billion, just within the federal limit.

The EPA had increased its monitoring of city water after the discovery of excessive lead in the water was made public more than two years ago. Agency officials said the high lead was due to leaching from lead service pipes.

In a letter to customers this past January, WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson called the test results "a very clear indicator that the drinking water treatment process is succeeding in controlling the potential for lead to leach from lead service lines and plumbing fixtures that contain lead inside the home."

WASA discovered excessive lead in 2002 and reported it to the EPA, but the extent of the contamination was not disclosed to the public until a Washington Post story in February 2004 revealed that tap water in 4,075 out of 6,118 homes tested by WASA had excessive lead. Many homes had lead levels above 300 parts per billion.

Lead can cause serious health damage, particularly in fetuses and in babies and other children. However, blood tests on more than 6,000 residents showed no immediate link between high levels of lead in tap water and lead levels in the blood, Johnson said in January.

Once a water utility discovers excessive lead, the EPA increases oversight. Under EPA orders, WASA embarked on a multi-pronged plan to correct the lead problem and protect consumers. The agency distributed free water filters and began replacing lead service pipes. Meanwhile, engineers at the Washington Aqueduct, a federal agency, added a chemical, orthophosphate, to the water to coat the pipes with a film that prevents lead from leaching. Engineers believe that the chemical has reduced the lead levels.

The EPA had required WASA to increase its lead testing from 50 samples a year to 100 every six months. WASA will be required to continue submitting 100 samples every six months for at least another year.

WASA will continue to replace all lead service pipes by 2010, as mandated by the authority's board of directors in 2004. WASA replaces pipes on public property, but customers have to pay to replace pipes on private property. Johnson said in January that about 29 percent of customers had elected to replace the pipes on their properties.

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