A water quality manager fired by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority in 2003 was ordered reinstated and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars yesterday by a judge who said she was improperly terminated after warning federal authorities about excessive lead in the District's tap water.
Seema S. Bhat, who had worked for WASA for four years, had "become an unwelcome whistle-blower" after informing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that lead in the city's drinking water had risen above federal limits, according to a 186-page ruling by Stuart A. Levin, an administrative law judge for the U.S. Department of Labor.
"By reaching out to EPA, she forced the lead issue to the forefront of her supervisor's agenda, and shortly thereafter, he recommended that she be fired," Levin wrote of Bhat.
Under the terms of Levin's ruling, WASA must pay Bhat $50,000 in compensatory damages and $10,000 in exemplary damages, as well as the back pay based on her salary of just over $73,000 a year, benefits, interest and attorneys fees and court costs.
The costs for WASA could total more than $500,000, said Bhat's attorney, Bryan J. Schwartz of the D.C. firm Passman & Kaplan.
"This is a great victory for Ms. Bhat, but also for the people of D.C.," Schwartz said. "It shows that [WASA] will have its feet held to the fire if it fails to provide service in a safe manner and violates the law set forth for people's protection."
Bhat, 59, who lives in Columbia, has been unemployed since her firing, Schwartz said. Although Bhat has sought work, she has had trouble because she was terminated and because she works in a specialized field, Schwartz added.
WASA Board Chairman Glenn S. Gerstell and a spokesman for General Manager Jerry N. Johnson declined to comment, saying they had not seen the ruling.
Although WASA was aware of the lead problem as early as 2002, the contamination, which affected thousands of homes, was not made public until a Washington Post story disclosed the results of the agency's tests in January 2004.
In the face of public concerns, WASA distributed free water filters and agreed to replace more than 20,000 lead service pipes by 2010. In June 2004, the EPA ruled that the agency had violated the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
The Washington Aqueduct added chemicals to the water supply in an effort to stop lead from leaching from service pipes. Lead levels fell below the federal action limit this spring. But WASA has yet to emerge from stricter federal oversight and has continued to urge consumers to take precautions such as using filters.
Bhat was the water quality manager responsible for the lead testing program when the excessive lead was discovered in small-scale testing in 2001 and 2002. After being fired by WASA in March 2003, Bhat challenged the agency under federal laws to protect whistle-blowers. She said she had been dismissed because she had reported the lead results directly to the EPA. A federal investigator ordered her reinstated in a ruling on the case in summer 2003.
But WASA did not reinstate her and instead appealed the case immediately. Before Levin, WASA officials portrayed Bhat as an abrasive, renegade employee whose failure to follow a chain of command resulted in the agency getting a delayed start in attacking the lead contamination problem.
Levin found that while Bhat made mistakes, WASA did discriminate against her.
"Simply put," Levin said in the ruling, "WASA failed to demonstrate that Bhat would have been fired in the absence of her protected activities. The record shows, to the contrary, that she was terminated not because she incurred the displeasure of her supervisor over the abrasive tone she exhibited toward him and others . . . she was fired because she engaged in activities protected by the" Safe Drinking Water Act.
Asked whether Bhat would return to work at WASA, Schwartz noted that the two men who recommended her termination -- her supervisor, Kofi Boateng, and his boss, Michael A. Marcotte, who was the deputy general manager -- have since left the agency.
In a statement released by Schwartz, Bhat said: "I have mixed feelings about returning, but I loved my job. That is what they objected to, the fact that I really cared."