By David Nakamura and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 3, 2009; B01
D.C. Water and Sewer Authority General Manager Jerry N. Johnson will resign this summer after 12 years, a move that a District government leader who oversees the agency said was aimed at restoring public confidence over Johnson's mishandling of the fallout from the discovery of excessive lead in the city's tap water five years ago.
Johnson, who took over WASA in 1997, shortly after its creation as a quasi-independent agency, has been faulted for failing to tell the public that lead contamination had been found in the water in 2004 and about the possible health effects, especially in children. Although he survived the political fallout from the initial crisis, Johnson has been the focus of renewed scrutiny in the wake of a recent report that found hundreds of children were exposed to potentially damaging amounts of lead.
The WASA board of directors voted yesterday to reach an agreement with Johnson about his departure, which will come a year before his contract was to expire, city officials said. WASA will negotiate a buyout with Johnson, who makes $230,000 a year, and begin a search for a new chairman.
"I really appreciate the public service of Mr. Johnson, but this gives us a real opportunity to have a new day at WASA where we can restore public confidence, which needs to be restored at this time," said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Committee on Public Works and Transportation, which oversees WASA.
In a statement, Johnson called WASA a "world class organization" and cited among his accomplishments upgrading a deteriorating infrastructure and establishing sound financial standing for an agency that was created during the District government's fiscal crisis in the mid-1990s.
WASA Chairman William M. Walker said Johnson had established WASA as one of the country's best water and sewer utilities and discounted the suggestion that Johnson's departure was tied to the lead controversy.
"To insinuate that this change was driven by the lead issue is just not correct," Walker said, adding that Johnson was "ready to move on to other things."
In 2004, news reports revealed that thousands of homes had excessive levels of lead in tap water because of the erosion of lead service lines. Agency officials, while playing down the health risks, agreed to distribute filters and replace the lead pipes, and federal authorities added chemicals to the water aimed at coating the pipes to stop the erosion. Officials have since said the lead levels have dropped to within Environmental Protection Agency standards.
Although a George Washington University professor hired by WASA as a consultant during the lead crisis said the health effects were negligible, a study released in January by Virginia Tech and Children's National Medical Center found that hundreds of young children were exposed to potentially damaging amounts of lead in their blood as lead levels rose in the city's drinking water.
"I was quoting information that was provided to us by health experts with the very best information we had at the time," Johnson said in January.