The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority will pay a public relations firm $100,000 over several months to help the agency conduct "crisis communications," a spokesman said yesterday.
The contract with Edelman, which will run through September, is intended to give WASA guidance on how to manage public concerns about the lead contamination that has been found in the tap water of thousands of city homes, as well as other agency projects, spokesman Johnnie Hemphill said.
Eric Hoffman, a senior vice president at Edelman, said his company will help WASA officials "expand their channels for communications so residents get the information they need and want."
WASA's communications have been criticized by local and federal leaders. The agency discovered excessive lead levels in the drinking water of some homes in 2002, then learned of more widespread problems last year.
But many residents and city leaders said they were unaware of the lead levels until news of the problem broke in January.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ruled this month that WASA violated the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in several ways, some pertaining to the public information rules.
In a letter in April, the EPA recommended that WASA hire an outside consultant.
"Assistance is clearly needed in the area of risk communication. Help should be sought in assessing the audience to be reached, making recommendations for design and content of materials to be used, as well as delivery methods," read the letter, which was signed by Donald S. Welsh, head of the EPA's Region III office in Philadelphia.
D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said yesterday that "if it takes some money to make sure past mistakes are not repeated, it will be money well spent."
Restoring public trust in WASA could be important for many reasons. The agency's board of directors has proposed a 5 percent increase in water rates, which has been opposed by some city leaders and residents.
On June 17, WASA held a news conference to offer its "community water pledge," a list of steps the agency is taking to manage the lead problem. Edelman helped facilitate that event, Hoffman said.
WASA has been without a full-time public relations director since December, when Libby Lawson, who had been filling that role, resigned.
After public outcry over media reports about high lead levels of lead, the agency hired a temporary public relations chief who has since left. Hemphill, whose official title is assistant to General Manager Jerry N. Johnson, has been doubling at times as spokesman.
Hemphill said the agency is looking for a full-time replacement for Lawson.