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High lead found in boston water { April 28 2004 }

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High Lead Found in Boston Area Water
EPA-State Decision Influenced by D.C. Utility's Handling of Contamination

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2004; Page A02

Federal and state regulators ruled yesterday that the drinking water delivered to 2.5 million customers in the Boston region has lead levels above the acceptable national standard, a decision prompted in part by lead problems in the District's water supply.

Yesterday's ruling came after months of scrutiny by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Massachusetts regulators who reviewed every water test conducted last year by the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority (MWRA). All water utilities must perform annual lead analyses to comply with the national Safe Drinking Water Act.

The utility was seeking to invalidate tests from 18 households, most with high lead levels. Approval of the rare request would have allowed the utility to declare itself in compliance with federal law.

But the handling of lead problems in the District has raised concerns about eliminating test results and prompted some members of Congress to demand that the EPA monitor the issue more aggressively.

After reviewing the tests in the Boston region, the EPA and the state yesterday told the MWRA, the largest water utility in New England, that it could not invalidate the tests. The decision means the utility is considered to have high levels of lead in its water and is out compliance with federal law, an MWRA spokesman said yesterday.

By law, customers in Boston and its suburbs must be notified that the water could pose health risks to vulnerable populations, such as young children and pregnant women.

The high lead readings were concentrated in 10 of 28 suburban communities. MWRA officials said they expect that those 10 would have to begin replacing roughly 7 percent of their lead service lines in the next year, a requirement when 10 percent of the test results exceed the federal lead standard of 15 parts per billion.

EPA Region I officials said the state will now verify the utility's test results for each community, and MWRA officials said that review will officially determine which of the suburban communities must replace lead service lines.

The MWRA had unsafe lead levels from 1997 to 2001, forcing Boston to replace hundreds of lead service lines. But the utility was in compliance in 2002 and 2003. Last year, the utility declared that it had reduced its lead levels to a safe level.

Utility spokesman Jonathan Yeo said yesterday's decision was disappointing "but not surprising."

"Now we'll be back to where we were for years," Yeo said. "There's only so much a water supplier can do. In the end, it's the source of lead in people's faucets or in the pipes in their homes."

Boston has replaced more than two-thirds of its lead service lines, which is supposed to reduce lead levels in water. Regulators said the surrounding communities where high lead levels were found may not have replaced many lead service lines.

Massachusetts began its review of the utility's plan to toss out some test results in late January just as news broke about Washington's lead problem. Tap water tests conducted by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority last year found lead levels that exceeded the federal standard in thousands of District households.

As the severity of Washington's problem unfolded in February and March, members of Congress demanded that the EPA determine whether it was missing or mishandling lead threats elsewhere. The EPA's top water administrator, Benjamin Grumbles, vowed at a congressional hearing to make sure Washington's lead problem wasn't repeated and to find out whether similar problems were lurking in other communities' water supplies.

"Region I got interested early on because of the interest in lead nationally because of D.C.'s problem, and to make sure everybody is regulating consistently across the country," said Damon Gutterman, a water monitoring supervisor in the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.

State environmental authorities considered allowing the MWRA to strike 18 samples out of 425 taken in the required annual measurement of the region's water quality. EPA officials questioned whether eliminating some samples might unfairly manipulate the results and violate the law.

Results of a federally required water test are supposed to be invalidated only when a water sample has been tampered with, a sample container has broken or the sample was taken from the wrong location, according to EPA officials. Not reporting results from a required water sample is considered a clear violation and could be considered criminal.

The MWRA said about half of the 18 samples at issue should be discarded because of errors made by homeowners; half were unusually high compared with previous years' results. In several meetings over the past four months, EPA officials warned the state that the law specifically prohibited rejecting a sample because of homeowner error or unusually high results.

EPA officials said in interviews yesterday that they expressed concern about MWRA's invalidation proposal before learning of Washington's problem. But they acknowledged that the EPA is scrutinizing water utilities and lead issues more closely after the Washington experience.

"The agency obviously has an increased awareness about the lead issue now since D.C.," said Karen McGuire, a senior water official at the EPA's Region I office. "Does the D.C. situation inform us and help us learn? Absolutely, yes."

Some of what the EPA is learning about the Boston region's water supply is similar to what surfaced in Washington.

A former WASA manager who was fired has alleged that the Washington utility tossed out some test results with high lead readings in order to avoid running afoul of federal law in 2001, two years before the utility found excessive levels in thousands of District homes.

WASA maintains that it consulted with the EPA about rejecting those results, but the EPA says it never approved invalidating any WASA tests. The dispute is the subject of an extensive EPA audit launched last month into all WASA water testing dating back to 1994.

Except in the District and Wyoming, state officials have primary responsibility for regulating the nation's 60,000 water utilities.

Staff researchers Meg Smith and Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.

2004 The Washington Post Company

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