A U.S. Senate committee adopted a plan that would provide $20 million to the District and create a $40 million, four-year grant program for schools nationwide to help reduce lead levels in drinking water, but passage of the legislation by the full Senate still faces significant opposition.
The Environment and Public Works Committee agreed this week to attach the provisions to a wide-ranging water infrastructure authorization bill that already has been controversial.
Even if the bill advances to a full Senate vote, some federal and local leaders, as well as District residents, said they are disappointed that the amendments would not do more to address problems related to excessive lead in water.
Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.) had offered proposals that would have required broader public notice if contamination is found, reduced the amount of lead allowed in plumbing fixtures, mandated tests in schools and given additional federal money to cities to replace lead service lines. But those ideas were voted down.
"We missed an opportunity . . . to pass a bill with some teeth in it and help address lead in our drinking water," Jeffords said in a statement. "Unfortunately, we're left with a bill that does nothing to address some of the most egregious lessons we learned in Washington, D.C. . . . The residents of Washington, D.C., and the entire nation deserve better."
Sen. Michael D. Crapo (R-Idaho), who proposed the amendments that were adopted after Jeffords's were defeated, believes they are a good start, said his communications director, Susan Wheeler. His plan would give $2 million to the National Academy of Sciences to study how extensive the problem of lead in the water is across the country. In the meantime, Wheeler said, the proposals would give financial relief to the District.
"The D.C. problem is important, and it's important we address it in the way we were asked to address it by city officials," Wheeler said, noting that District leaders have requested additional federal funding to manage the lead problems.
"I would be very grateful to the Congress if they sent money to the District to reimburse us," said D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large).
Last year, thousands of District homes were found to have water with lead levels that exceeded the federal limit. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently ruled that the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority violated the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in several ways, some local leaders say that helping the city is not sufficient because federal rules governing lead in water are vague and ineffective.
In response, Jeffords, as well as Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), have pushed legislation to tighten federal regulations.
Norton took a positive view of the Senate committee's action, saying it was unrealistic for all of Jeffords's ideas to be adopted. She said she was pleased that the Senate committee supported giving the District significant federal funds.
"It's a good incremental step," she said.
Benjamin H. Grumbles, the EPA's top water official, has told Congress that his staff is reviewing the federal Lead and Copper Rule. So far, however, Grumbles has not recommend a broad overhaul of federal lead regulations, although there are some areas that the EPA continues to study.
Katherine Funk, a mother who lives on Capitol Hill, opened her home in April to Crapo, Jeffords, D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and a few other officials. At the meeting, Funk and several other parents expressed their concerns about the water contamination problems in the District and warned that similar problems could affect other cities.
Yesterday, Funk said she was disappointed that the Senate committee had not adopted Jeffords's amendments.
"If Senator Crapo was listening, I do not think he heard what was going on," she said. "It's a little disappointing . . . unless they don't care, which I guess is the conclusion I'd have to draw."