Residents Seek Reassurance On Safety of Drinking Water

By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2008

D.C. Water and Sewer Authority officials faced heated questions and concerns last night from a small group of residents and activists at a meeting about the utility's idea to scale back its replacement of lead water pipes across the city.

General Manager Jerry N. Johnson told about a dozen residents that District drinking water meets federal guidelines since a chemical was added in 2004 to prevent lead leeching from pipes and that no significant health issues have been detected. The authority also replaced nearly half of its 35,000 lead pipes in public space at a cost of $93 million, Johnson said.

Officials faced strong criticism from the crowd when they explained that the partial replacement program, which replaces pipes on public property while relying on homeowners to replace lines on private property, had not resulted in a significant change in lead levels but could not provide detailed data.

"We are parents and we're concerned about our children, and we're not getting answers from WASA," said Yanna Lambrinidou, president of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, after a five-minute heated exchange between Johnson and audience members.

WASA officials held the meeting in Southeast Washington as the first of five forums to discuss the program's progress and to gather public input about its future. Four meetings are scheduled through February.

The pipe replacements began to help the agency comply with federal rules after WASA found excessive levels of lead in some tap water in 2002. Officials said last night that lead levels spike in about 5 percent of homes after pipes are replaced but could not provide more details, a fact that became a flashpoint.

"We're talking about a lot of people. Five percent is a pretty big [number of people] in this city," said Ralph Scott, a Capitol Hill resident and executive director of the Alliance for Healthy Homes.

"We're meeting the requirements of the law," Johnson responded. But he said concerned people could request more data or schedule a detailed briefing.

"We just did not come prepared to get into that level of detail," he said.

Lead levels were reduced primarily by treating the water with the chemical orthophosphate, said officials, who contended that the original accelerated pipe replacement schedule is not needed. However, the agency still might move ahead with the accelerated replacements to finish in 2016 at an additional cost of $315 million.

"Charge me now, so when you have to pay for this 20 years from now, you won't be eating into my Social Security checks," said James Bunn, 65, of Congress Heights.

Lambrinidou said in an interview that WASA failed to provide answers to the simplest of questions.

"We in D.C. are not pushing WASA to be accountable," she said.

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