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Epa says wasa violated lead law { April 2 2004 }

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WASA Violated Lead Law, EPA Says
Public Alert, Testing Called Inadequate

By David Nakamura and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 2, 2004; Page A01

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority violated federal law by failing to properly notify city residents of high lead levels in the drinking water and to adequately protect public health, regulators at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said yesterday.

In a letter to WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson, the EPA alleged that the agency failed to follow six requirements of the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which governs lead in drinking water.

The EPA cited WASA's failure to use federally mandated language in brochures and public service announcements and to undertake more water tests at homes where lead service pipes were replaced last year.

The EPA's letter represents the first official declaration by the federal government that local officials acted improperly. Jon M. Capacasa, water protection director in the EPA's Region III office in Philadelphia, which oversees the District, said the letter represents the initial findings of an audit the EPA started when the lead problem was revealed two months ago.

Capacasa sent a second letter to Johnson requesting additional documents and information. WASA, which can contest the findings, was given 21 days to respond. The EPA also threatened to fine WASA as much as $32,000 a day if the agency fails to produce the documents.

After reviewing WASA's response, the EPA will decide what action to take and could order the utility to improve communication, distribute more water filters and meet specific deadlines to address the lead problem, Capacasa said.

WASA spokeswoman Pat Wheeler said that the agency was reviewing the EPA correspondence and that officials were not ready to comment.

In the past two months, city and congressional leaders, as well as WASA officials, have argued over which agencies were responsible for not fully disclosing the lead problem. Although some officials have been critical of the way WASA and the D.C. Department of Health reacted to the discovery of the elevated lead contamination, those agencies have maintained that they followed EPA guidelines.

"I'm glad the EPA made this ruling," D.C. Council member Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) said. "It's further proof WASA was not following the law and looking out for the health of the citizens."

Paul Schwartz, a policy coordinator for Clean Water Action, said the findings were alarming.

"WASA was very well aware of the problem and purposely looked to obscure the public health problem," he said. "The biggest part of the problem is the coverup, and this is why we now have a lack of trust."

But the EPA's action was criticized yesterday by some city leaders, who said the federal agency has primary oversight of WASA and took too long to notice the violations, some of which took place in 2002.

"Where were you, EPA?" D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said yesterday at an oversight hearing attended by EPA officials. "Two years later you are like, 'Bad, bad, bad!' [But] are you going to cite yourselves for violations now?"

Thomas C. Voltaggio, Region III's deputy administrator, acknowledged at the hearing that "few people here wear a white hat."

WASA is a quasi-independent agency run by a board of directors made up of six D.C. representatives appointed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and five chosen from Montgomery, Prince George's and Fairfax counties.

WASA officials first learned of lead problems during the 2001-02 testing period when about half of 53 houses showed water with lead levels that exceeded the federal limit of 15 parts per billion, which under the law required WASA to take action. Since then, tests on more than 5,000 additional homes have found water with excessive lead.

As required by federal law, WASA mailed notices to customers and made public service announcements about the lead problems. But in both cases, the agency failed to use federally mandated language, Capacasa said.

In a brochure sent in August 2003, WASA failed to say that the lead was found "in your drinking water" and that the levels were "significant," Capacasa said. In public service announcements in October 2002 and April and October 2003, WASA failed to call the lead "unhealthy" and to say how much it would cost for a water test. The agency also failed to make one of the required public service announcements, he said.

The EPA also said WASA failed to properly conduct follow-up water tests at some of the 398 houses where the agency had done partial replacements of lead service lines last year. Although WASA in many cases provided water testing kits to the residents, it did not follow up when the residents failed to send test samples back, Capacasa said. Research has shown that in many cases, lead levels rise if only a portion of the lead service line is replaced.

Of the 130,000 service lines in the city, about 23,000 are lead and the rest copper or brass, according to officials.

Internal records from EPA's Region III office show that some staff members appeared to believe that their agency had signed off on WASA's brochure. In an e-mail to colleagues Feb. 24, three weeks after the elevated lead levels became widely known, EPA outreach coordinator Larry Teller wrote that: "EPA must face the fact that WASA's inadequate outreach has been judged here as complying with agency regulations. How can this be?"

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said the EPA was missing "when we needed you most."

When an agency "knows of a violation and enforces the law only after the damage is done, you don't know whether to laugh or to cry," she said.

Tony Bullock, the mayor's spokesman, said the EPA's action was hypocritical. "Had they been enforcing the provisions of the law back in the fall of 2002, we would be that much farther along in solving this serious problem now," Bullock said.

But Capacasa stressed that WASA "has the responsibility to meet the regulations. People looking to us are missing that point."

Last month, the EPA ordered WASA to take several steps to help protect residents. For example, the EPA called on WASA to send water filters to all of the estimated 23,000 homes with lead service lines. WASA is complying.

But city leaders and environmentalists called on EPA to do more, such as requiring more water tests and extending a health advisory until the lead problem has abated.

2004 The Washington Post Company

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