D.C. water agency rinses off a lead-stained name

By Mike DeBonis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The District's water and sewer agency moved to abandon a tarnished public identity on Tuesday, unveiling a new name and insignia hours before a congressional panel continued probing the high levels of waterborne lead in city homes early last decade.

The utility -- which has operated as the Water and Sewer Authority, or WASA, since 1996 -- will now be known as "D.C. Water." A new logo, consisting of a lowercase "dc" paired with a blue water drop, was unveiled to the media and public officials outside the agency's Southwest Washington headquarters.

The image-retooling comes less than a year into the tenure of General Manager George S. Hawkins, who was hired by the agency's board after serving as the top environmental aide to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). Hawkins has been credited by board members, public officials and the utility's employee union with refreshing a hidebound culture.

But he continues to face skepticism from the public and from Congress over the agency's performance after the 2004 revelation that tap water in many District homes far exceeded the federal limit for lead contamination.

A change in water chemistry made by the federal Washington Aqueduct in 2002 caused lead to leach out of century-old service lines; WASA was widely criticized for moving slowly to inform the public. A secretive attitude and ham-fisted public relations further eroded confidence in the utility.

Lead levels have stabilized since the aqueduct began adding an anticorrosive agent to city water in August 2004, and Hawkins says he's made it a priority to improve communications with the public. He calls the rebranding "part of the last chapter" of the lead crisis. "The record has been very strong for the last five years, since that whole catastrophe," Hawkins said. "This is a new era."

Still, the lead issue has not disappeared more than six years after it was first widely publicized.

A report issued by a House investigative subcommittee last month called one 2004 analysis of the health impacts of lead, done by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "scientifically indefensible." WASA repeatedly relied on that study to calm public fears over lead levels.

The House subcommittee overseeing District affairs convened a hearing Tuesday to address those concerns, and the most pointed questioning was reserved for a CDC official. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (Utah), the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said the CDC's findings were "bogus" and called for "a very thorough analysis."

Ileana Arias, the CDC's principal deputy director, defended her agency in the matter. "We regret the fact that we did not become knowledgeable of the situation in D.C. any earlier," she told the committee. "But . . . it was an appropriate response; it was an adequate response."

Local leaders insist that the water utility is heading in the right direction.

D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), a frequent critic of WASA's handling of the lead crisis, said the new name also reflects less-visible improvements at the utility. "It does help, but what really helps is substance, and I think we are getting the substance from [Hawkins]," Graham said.

The agency launched a public contest in February to come up with its new identity. Three entrants, including a D.C. Water employee, shared the $2,000 prize for coming up with parts of the new brand.

Hawkins says the rebranding -- which involves dozens of exterior signs, a fleet of hundreds of vehicles and the uniforms of scores of employees -- should be complete within six months. The cost is estimated at $160,000.

Because a more complete change would require congressional approval, "D.C. Water and Sewer Authority" will remain the utility's corporate moniker -- a point that Hawkins made under questioning from Chaffetz.

But Chaffetz said he supported the change all the same.

"It's marketing," he said. "I can appreciate it."

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