The chairman of the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority said last night that he is prepared to be removed from his post if investigations back up allegations of safety weaknesses at the District's Blue Plains sewage treatment plant.
But Ron M. Linton, the board's chairman, repeated his contention that the management of the Southwest plant is excellent and that none of the conditions described Friday in The Washington Post presented any safety threat to plant workers or the public at large.
If the result of the investigation is "an embarrassment to us or to my chairmanship, I am prepared to take the penalty," said Linton, who is a mayoral appointee.
The comments came at a D.C. Council oversight hearing last night into operations at Blue Plains. The hearing was called after The Post detailed a series of apparent shortcomings in the accident prevention system at the treatment plant, where more than 180 tons of toxic liquid chlorine is stored.
Former and current safety technicians told The Post--and documents backed them up--that most of the plant's chlorine sensors did not work properly; that an audible alarm system had been disconnected repeatedly by workers; and that safety equipment, such as emergency breathing apparatus, was not properly maintained.
Linton told the council that an independent investigation commissioned by the Water and Sewer Authority and being prepared by lawyer James V. Dick will be complete by Tuesday.
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, expressed a degree of skepticism about Linton's claims.
"There have been over the years safety problems" at the plant, Schwartz said. "We have known this for a long time."
Schwartz asked whether the authority had addressed the 27 pages of safety shortcomings at Blue Plains documented in September 1996 by a city worker safety agency.
Both D.C. Water and Sewer Authority General Manager Jerry Johnson and authority worker safety coordinator Robert Narvaez said they hadn't seen that document until yesterday, so they could not respond.
Schwartz also asked why Johnson, who was hired as general manager in June 1997, didn't hire a certified safety director until May 1999.
Johnson said he was not satisfied with the candidates who initially applied. During the nearly two-year search, he added, the agency was doing little but a "maintenance of effort" on worker safety.
Several union leaders sat in the back of the council chambers last night, shaking their heads in disbelief as Linton and Johnson told the council that they were unaware of previous reports on plant safety shortcomings.
"It is a blatant lie," union leader Morris Tolson said in an interview. "They have long had copies of these documents, and they know these safety problems are continuing."
Johnson and his top deputies said they were unaware of weaknesses in the plant's chlorine accident prevention systems until Nov. 1, when they received a tip that a reporter was preparing a story on the subject.
At one point they questioned the existence of such weaknesses, but they also testified that steps were taken late last week to address concerns raised in the Post story, such as establishing round-the-clock supervision and installing new sensors.
In response to questions from Schwartz, Johnson also acknowledged that the plant has not regularly performed worker evacuation drills. And Johnson said he was not sure whether the fire department had all the equipment it needed to respond to an emergency at the plant, which has one of the largest supplies of toxic chemicals in the region.
Schwartz decided to reconvene the hearing after the authority's internal investigation is complete. She also said she wants testimony from fire officials and city worker safety inspectors.