Water Assessment Is Murky

Jerry Johnson, general manager of WASA, accused a D.C. Council member of asking a trick question.
Jerry Johnson, general manager of WASA, accused a D.C. Council member of asking a trick question. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The general manager of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority told council members yesterday that he would allow a child to drink the city's tap water despite a recent independent study that linked the District's lead crisis of several years ago to potentially damaging blood-lead levels in hundreds of children.

But when asked if he would give that advice to the general public, Jerry Johnson said, "I don't know."

His conflicting answers drew murmurs and wagging heads from people in the audience during a public oversight hearing on the city's water quality. The issue has been controversial since a change in water treatment caused hazardous concentrations of lead to seep into the drinking water, starting in 2001. The Washington Post publicized the problem in 2004, spurring water treatment that now minimizes the corrosion of lead service lines.

Two weeks ago, The Post published findings of a report from Virginia Tech and Children's National Medical Center linking the crisis to potential harm to fetuses and children younger than 2 during the water crisis.

Scientists say the study suggests that hundreds or as many as tens of thousands of those youngsters could be at a risk of losing two to three IQ points or suffering health problems. Besides the amount of lead ingested, however, the ultimate result on a child depends on genetics, home environment and experience in school, experts said.

Yesterday, irate parents and environmental activists said that WASA cannot be trusted and that the city's water probably remains unsafe to drink. "Their years-long coverup has started to unravel," said Ralph Scott, community projects director for the Alliance for Healthy Homes.

Council members Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), who jointly held yesterday's hearing, have asked the city's inspector general to look into whether WASA and other agencies have been misleading the public. Graham said he was disappointed that the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) did not provide a witness from the city Department of Health.

Johnson testified that WASA was repeating information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that residents' health had not been affected. "I'm not a physician. I'm not an epidemiologist," he said. "We had to rely on outside services."

Representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency took a similar stance at the start of the five-hour hearing.

Victoria Binetti, associate director of the EPA's Drinking Water and Source Water Protection division, said she was a "biologist by training" and "not a public health specialist" when pressed on the hazards of the drinking water. Binetti explained that "it is not necessarily safe for everyone to drink," pointing to infants, the elderly and those with weak immune systems. "That's true across the board, across the country," she said.

Johnson later repeated that EPA qualifier and WASA's warnings to pregnant women and others that filters should be used if their water has not been tested. He said the utility distributed 40,000 filters, starting in 2004.

"Those messages are overwhelmed by messages of 'there's no harm . . . the water is safe to drink,' " Cheh said.

Graham pointed to a letter to the editor published Feb. 1 in The Post by William M. Walker, chairman of the utility's Board of Directors. " . . . I would like WASA customers to know: Your water is safe to drink, and WASA is watching out for your health and well-being and that of your children. Please remember, they are our children, too," Walker wrote.

Graham, who has been pushing for years for city control of WASA, said the letter was contradictory with the agency's statements yesterday.

Johnson appeared flustered and irritated at the questioning, particularly Graham's inquiries about allowing a child to get a drink of water from the faucet. "You asked me what I would do, Mr. Graham," Johnson said. "That's a trick question. . . . You don't deal with the general public the way you would deal with yourself."

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