WASA Backs Off Lead Pipe Program

Technician Kelly Schmiedt is shown working in a lab in 2004 after elevated lead levels were discovered in D.C. water.
Technician Kelly Schmiedt is shown working in a lab in 2004 after elevated lead levels were discovered in D.C. water. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2008

The board of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority voted yesterday to curtail a multimillion-dollar program to replace all of the water system's lead service pipes, saying that the project was expensive and that other measures had reduced lead in the city's water.

The board passed a resolution to suspend the large-scale replacement program but said it would continue replacing public lead pipes when water mains are being fixed or, in certain cases, when residents want to replace the private section of lead pipe going into their homes.

David McLaughlin, the utility's acting director of engineering and technical services, said the move would save WASA about $197 million over the next seven years.

"I think it's a solid move," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who heads the committee that oversees WASA. "I have pressed for it for months and months and months. We had expert testimony that the . . . program was not achieving the desired objective and may have actually been having adverse effects."

He added, "It was just money down the drain."

In other action yesterday, the WASA board approved a rate increase of 7.5 percent, down from the 8.5 percent requested by its management. The increase takes effect Oct 1. It is the authority's sixth increase since 2003, when rates were reduced by 5.25 percent. WASA is at the start of a 10-year $3.1 billion infrastructure-improvement program.

After hazardous levels of lead were found in city water in 2004, the authority launched an aggressive plan to reduce lead contamination by replacing the District's known 35,000 public lead service pipes.

As of June, the program had cost $109 million, according to WASA documents, and it was forecast to cost an additional $293 million.

WASA decided in 2004 to replace the public portion of the lead service lines and require homeowners to pay for replacing that portion of pipe on their private property if they chose to have the work done.

Only a few thousand homeowners have chosen to pay the $2,000 apiece to replace the lead pipes on their property. As a result, in most cases, WASA's efforts produced only a partial replacement of the lead pipe. And in those cases, studies showed, work on the pipes resulted in a temporary increase in lead in the water for some residents, a problem that WASA said lasted about two weeks but that critics said lasted longer.

WASA officials have said the addition of orthophosphate, which inhibits corrosion, to the water in 2004 has dramatically reduced lead levels and made the District's water safe to drink.

Local safe water activists agree that the orthophosphate has helped, but they contend that WASA's water testing procedures are flawed and that the results are probably inaccurate.

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