A high-ranking manager of Washington, D.C.'s Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) was fired last year for directly warning EPA authorities of lead contamination in the city's tap water. Now she has gone public with her story.
Seema S. Bhat was WASA's water quality manager from 1999 until she was fired in March after her bosses decided that she had too often reported lead problems directly to the Environmental Protection Agency.
A federal investigator who reviewed the matter last summer ruled that Bhat was improperly terminated and ordered WASA to rehire her and pay her damages. But civic authorities in D.C. are refusing to place the whistle-blower back in service and have appealed the decision.
In an interview last week with The Washington Post, Bhat and her attorney, Brian J. Schwartz, said WASA officials constantly reprimanded her for raising the issue of lead contamination with EPA even after it was clear that the city would exceed a federal guideline.
Bhat said she was keeping EPA informed because she wanted WASA to replace lead service lines and inform the public of the problems. Instead, according to Bhat, her superiors told her to be more patient and enrolled her in a training course designed to teach her to respect the chain of command.
WASA officials declined to comment about Bhat because the case is in litigation. However, Deputy General Manager Michael Marcotte said he had been unaware of the extent of the lead problems because he had not been privy to much of the information that Bhat was relaying to the EPA.
Under WASA's chain of command, Bhat reported to Kofi Boateng, WASA's director of the Department of Water Services. Boateng reported to Marcotte.
At a news conference held last week, WASA officials acknowledged that they had not done enough to keep the public informed about widespread lead contamination in the tap water. Tests of water in 6,118 homes last summer found that 4,075 had lead levels that exceeded the EPA's limit of 15 parts per billion. Test results were not mailed to residents until November. Some residents say they never did receive the results.
Worse than punishment for a civic-minded official who was doing her moral duty has been revelations that WASA officials attempted to cover up dangerous levels of lead in its potable water as far back as 2000.
According to records now revealed on behalf of Bhat, WASA officials tested water nearly four years ago in 50 houses in the capital and found that at least in seven cases, it had lead content that exceeded the EPA standards.
But instead of submitting that report to EPA, WASA officials invalidated the results and re-tested the houses. Somehow, the re-test results showed only four houses exceeding the federal lead limit, therefore WASA was not in violation of EPAs 10 per cent ceiling.
WASA is not commenting to the media on Bhats case on the ground that it is under litigation, but its chairman, Glenn Gerstell conceded that "we have not done a good enough job...we will redouble our efforts without being alarmist".
Lead from drinking water can damage the human brain, nervous system, kidneys and red blood cells, particularly in children and unborn babies.
EPA guidelines require 7 percent of contaminated lead pipes to be replaced every year, which means the local authorities will have to spend between $10 million to $20 million a year on that effort.