By Clarence Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 2, 2008
The board of directors for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority heard from advocates and opponents of their $400 million dollar lead pipe replacement program last night, the start of a process to decide whether the program should continue.
The nine-member panel heard from more than a dozen witnesses, including local clean-water and environmental activists who urged the board to pressure WASA to be more open and honest with its data. Last night's hearing started a 30-day comment period for the board to assess recommendations on how the authority can continue to keep lead levels in line with Environmental Protection Agency standards. Some tests show that replacing the lead pipes has brought little or no change in the lead levels in some residents' tap water.
"We are voluntarily reviewing this; we don't want to duck the issue," board Chairman Robin Martin said. "I want the average person to be able to turn the tap and feel comfortable drinking the water. It's no more complicated than that."
What remains complex is whether the board, WASA and the city government can replace lead pipes across the city -- particularly when there are doubts about the effectiveness in reducing lead levels -- when the water authority also faces rate increases of about 10 percent to pay for multimillion-dollar sewage and drainage improvements.
In 2004, it was revealed that tap water across the city failed to meet safe lead levels, and WASA embarked on an ambitious program to replace 35,000 lead pipes citywide -- all the primary water mains, in particular. The program included partial replacement of pipes in certain areas, and after $93 million spent and an average increase of water bills by 15 percent, that portion of the program has shown no significant improvements. At times, it has made the problem worse.
"We have always acknowledged that there is a short-term spike in lead" from the partial replacements, said Jerry N. Johnson, WASA's general manager. Johnson said WASA management will not make a recommendation to the board until after the comment period ends.
Most who testified last night agreed that the partial replacements were not a good value for the $93 million spent so far and that the system should be suspended.
Board member and City Administrator Dan Tangherlini said in an interview after the hearing that safety concerns and budget pressures amounted to a "classic public policy case." But he added that he understands the health concerns and chose to replace the lead pipes in his home.
"What troubles me, as a father of two, is the science now says that there is no level of lead that is safe," Tangherlini said.
Several witnesses from groups such as DC Appleseed, Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives and Alliance for Healthy Homes recommended that the board continue with a full replacement of lead pipes citywide, testing by an independent scientific agency not paid by WASA, full disclosure of data to the public and creation of a citizen's oversight board.
Paul Schwartz of Clean Water Action and a Ward 4 resident, presented much of his testimony in the form of a performance art poem in hopes that he could display the "heart and soul" of a frustrated resident as well as an activist.
"WASA board assembled here tonight: Do not give in to common plebian fright. Embrace the people who will, for the love of their baby girls and boys, never, ever give up the fight," Schwartz said. "So WASA board, what you gonna do about it?"