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Doubts on Lead Pipe Replacement

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By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 26, 2008

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority is considering scaling back its plan to replace underground lead water pipes, saying that a chemical added to the distribution system in recent years has significantly reduced lead contamination citywide.

Under a $408 million program, WASA has been working since 2004 to replace lead pipes that run from non-lead water mains to about 35,000 homes. The agency has been replacing the sections of pipe under public land, stretching from the mains to private property lines, and offering financial help to residents for replacement of the sections that run beneath their property.

Although WASA has replaced 14,100 pipes, only 1,900 homeowners "have elected to replace the portion of the lead service pipe on their side of the property line," the agency said yesterday. Because such partial replacements result in only slight decreases in lead levels, the agency said, homeowners' limited participation in the program has raised doubts about the plan's cost-effectiveness.

In addition, WASA's water quality manager said, the introduction of the chemical orthophosphate to the water supply several years ago has reduced the amount of lead to levels deemed acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency. WASA is wondering whether reducing the levels further is worth the millions of dollars budgeted for the replacement program.

WASA's directors have scheduled five public hearings over the next month to discuss the possibility of significantly scaling back the program, said spokeswoman Michele Quander-Collins. Members of the WASA board will vote on the issue in the spring.

"We're below the [danger] level already," said Rich Giani, the water quality manager. "Do you want to go even lower? If so, what's it worth to you? Do you want to take that money away from other projects, from the infrastructure improvements we need in other areas? Those are the questions the board wants to pose to the public."

WASA's credibility took a beating in 2004 when news media reports revealed that the District's drinking water had long-running problems with lead contamination. The lead levels had begun to rise in 2001, but three agencies -- WASA, the EPA and the Washington Aqueduct -- failed to alert the public to the well-established health risks.

Yanna Lambrinidou, a Northwest Washington resident and head of Parents for Non-Toxic Alternatives, said she will wait to hear what WASA officials say at the public hearings before taking a position on scaling back the program. But she said she doubts the validity of tests showing that the chemical has significantly cut lead levels.

"For WASA to claim that orthophosphate is an effective solution and we can just give up on the replacements and all go back to sleep is alarming to us," she said.

The WASA plan calls for the 35,000 pipes to be replaced by 2016. The agency is considering reducing costs by adding many years to the timeline and replacing pipes in conjunction with larger projects, such as when streets are dug up and resurfaced or water mains are replaced.

Giani said that every six months, WASA analyzes water from 100 to 180 homes across the city with lead service pipes. Before orthophosphate was used, Giani said, the water in at least 90 percent of the homes had a lead content exceeding the EPA's acceptable level of 15 parts per billion. He said some water contained levels as high as 75 parts per billion.

After a few years, the levels dropped significantly. Since the summer of 2005, he said, the water in more than 90 percent of the homes has been at or below 15 parts per billion. Because "the water chemistry throughout the city is pretty consistent," he said, the 100 to 180 homes are representative of the District as a whole.

The times and locations of the public hearings are available at WASA's Web site, http://www.dcwasa.com. The first session will be held from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesday at the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center, 701 Mississippi Ave. SE.


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