The District’s water utility found itself on the defensive this week after a Virginia Tech professor who has crusaded against lead in drinking water told a congressional panel that the city’s lead problem in the early 2000s was “20 to 30 times worse” than what has occurred recently in Flint, Mich.
D.C. Water officials said that they didn’t take issue with professor Marc Edwards’s statement Tuesday to a House committee because the District is a much larger city than Flint, and the elevated levels of lead in the city’s tap water occurred over several years vs. about 18 months in Flint.
“We’ve never denied what happened in the early 2000s,” said George S. Hawkins, general manager of D.C. Water. “No question, it was a very significant problem in the District . . . . We certainly learned from it, and now we have a very advanced [lead] control system in place.”
Hawkins, who joined the utility in 2009, five years after the elevated lead levels were made public, said the agency’s monitoring program has found D.C.’s water lead levels to be below the federal limit since the mid-2000s. He objected, he said, to the publisher of the website insidesources.com teasing Thursday to its story about the congressional hearing by tweeting, “D.C. RESIDENTS : Do not drink your tap water. Story breaking soon.”
“That’s fundamentally irresponsible,” Hawkins said of the tweet. “It inflamed the situation and certainly brought eyes [to the story], but it’s not responsible journalism in my view.”
The website’s story, published shortly after the tweet, did not quote Edwards or anyone else advising people not to drink city water.
In an interview Thursday, Edwards told The Washington Post that he “didn’t say anything like that” to the website’s reporter. Edwards said the utility and other government agencies “covered up” the city’s water crisis in the early 2000s. However, since 2010, he said, “D.C. Water has been as safe or even more safe in terms of lead than other U.S. cities with lead pipe.”
The website’s publisher, Shawn McCoy, did not respond to a request for an interview about his tweet. In an email, McCoy wrote, “D.C. Water has not refuted any part of the [website] story. I read the story, and I have no intention of drinking D.C. tap water again.”
McCoy also included a link to a Post story Thursday about a USA Today report based on an analysis of data from the Environmental Protection Agency. The story found that nearly 20 percent of U.S. water systems tested above the EPA’s lead “action level” of 15 parts per billion.
Flint’s drinking water became contaminated after April 2014, when the city switched its water source to the Flint River to save money. Because Michigan environmental officials did not ensure that the city added anti-corrosive chemicals during the treatment process, lead in older pipes leached into the water supply. That exposed residents, including thousands of children, to dangerous lead levels. The city switched back to Lake Huron water in October 2015, but residents still must filter their tap water.
D.C. water had alarming levels of lead between 2001 and 2004, when the Washington Aqueduct, which supplies city water, changed its treatment chemical from chlorine to chloramine. The aqueduct made the switch under an EPA rule that was designed to limit byproducts in the disinfectant process, the utility said.
However, the chloramine caused pipes to corrode, allowing lead to leach from the city’s older pipes into the water supply. An investigation later found that the utility, then known as the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), avoided sounding the alarm, even after federal law required it to issue warnings about health risks from rising lead levels. Records showed that WASA officials knew in summer 2001 that the water contained unsafe lead levels but withheld six high test results from federal regulators and said that the water was acceptable.
One study that Edwards co-authored found that 42,000 District children who were in the womb or younger than 2 during the water crisis were exposed to high levels of lead, putting them at risk of health and behavioral problems.
In 2004, the aqueduct began adding orthophosphate to the water to limit pipe corrosion. The city also continues to replace older lead pipes, Hawkins said, though he noted that some older homes that still have lead pipes or service lines have lead levels at around four parts per billion.
D.C.’s lead problems attracted renewed attention Tuesday, when Edwards told the House panel that he was not surprised about the lead problems in Flint because of what he called federal officials’ “willful blindness” toward unsafe drinking water.
Edwards criticized EPA officials, who he said were responsible for Flint’s lead problems because they had been “unable to learn from their mistakes.”
“The EPA and other agencies caused a similar lead-in-the-water crisis in Washington, D.C. from 2001 to 2004 that actually was 20 to 30 times worse in terms of the health harm to children in Washington, D.C.,” Edwards told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Edwards told the panel that EPA officials had “completely covered” up the District’s lead problems for six years. That, he said, “created a climate in which anything goes across the United States” regarding unsafe levels of lead in drinking water.
In an interview Thursday, Edwards said his comparison that D.C. had been “20 to 30 times worse” than Flint was based on “the number of people, the duration of exposure and the population harmed.” He added that the levels of lead found in D.C.’s water in the early 2000s were three times higher than the levels found in Flint.
D.C. Water is still facing five lawsuits related to the elevated lead levels. Edwards is involved as an expert for plaintiffs in all of the lawsuits, D.C. Water officials said.