At a congressional hearing on Friday, federal officials described the levels of lead contamination in the District of Columbia's drinking water as the worst seen by regulators. They ordered immediate action to protect the public, including prompt distribution of bottled water or water filters to residents.
Two senior officials with the Environmental Protection Agency delivered their appraisals of the situation before the House Committee on Government Reform. Their comments represented the most direct response by the federal government in the five weeks since the public learned that thousands of households exceeded the federal lead limit last summer.
The testimony included very serious assessments from experts who warned that immediate action must be taken to protect the public as well as sharp criticism of the EPA and the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA).
Donald S. Welsh, regional administrator of the EPA's Region III office in Philadelphia, ordered the District to take immediate steps to protect the public and gave city officials and WASA until Wednesday to provide a detailed plan for accomplishing the goal.
The key requirements are that the city provide bottled water or water filters to the 23,000 D.C. homes with lead service lines; convey a sense of urgency to all D.C. residents about the health risks of their tap water; and speed up reporting of lead test results to homeowners.
The process of distributing water filters to thousands of homes in Washington that have high lead levels already had begun Thursday, when WASA received 3,000 of the 10,000 Brita water filter pitchers donated by the company. The first 200 went to home-based daycare centers. Private homes with young children or pregnant women are the top priority in the distribution process.
The federal government's aggressive posture on Capitol Hill represented a sudden shift in the response to the lead contamination, initially played down by WASA and the EPA. Back in February, the federal agency described WASA's actions as following the letter of the law, but Friday it said the utility may have violated rules by not properly informing the public of the threat to the water supply.
Benjamin H. Grumbles, EPA's acting assistant administrator for water, was pressed by Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) to name a place where lead levels have registered as high as in Washington. "I don't know of any situation like this in the country, Grumbles said, adding, "Staff tell me there is more lead in EPA Superfund sites."
Experts testifying before the committee urged other emergency measures, including wide-scale testing of lead in children's blood and an immediate halt to the replacement of lead service lines. The replacement is required by the EPA when lead levels exceed acceptable standards, but there is evidence that the process increases lead contamination.
"When we have hurricanes and floods, we take dramatic steps to ensure public safety," said Ellen K. Silbergeld, a Johns Hopkins University environmental epidemiologist who has reported irreversible damage in infants from short-term exposure to lead. "If the imminent and substantial endangerment posed here doesn't mean you should use your emergency authority, I don't know what does."
City officials, who at the onset described the lead contamination as a problem for WASA that would not involve the D.C. Health Department, yesterday found themselves singled out by the EPA as the party responsible for ensuring the new requirements are met.
City Administrator Robert C. Bobb said the city is "prepared to do whatever is necessary" to reduce public risk, including distributing bottled water to a larger group of residents who may be at risk of exposure and expanding tests for lead in children's blood.
But Bobb said there's no reason for EPA to exercise emergency powers. "There's nothing to demonstrate that we are incapable of managing this," he said. "The city's treating this with extraordinary urgency."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), the chairman of the House committee, and other members questioned how the three agencies responsible for assuring a safe water supply could have allowed toxic levels of lead to leach into the water supply and then not inform the public about the threat.
The three agencies are WASA, which serves 1 million customers in the District, Arlington and parts of Falls Church; the Washington Aqueduct, which operates two reservoirs and is owned by the Army Corps of Engineers; and the EPA, which enforces federal regulations.
"What is most troubling is that mistakes in judgment and procedure were apparently made at every important juncture," said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) "And any one of the three agencies could have caught the problem much earlier. All deferred to one another, creating an appearance of collusion and suppression of information."
Tony Bullock, the spokesman for Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), said EPA officials helped create the city's lead problem by requiring a change in water treatment that some experts blame for the contamination.
WASA first began finding high lead readings in water samples taken from homes in 2000 and officially exceeded the level the federal government considers safe in 2002. But most public officials and residents first learned of the problem when The Washington Post reported the elevated lead levels Jan. 31.
At the hearing, officials from WASA, the aqueduct and EPA sometimes shifted responsibility to one another and gave conflicting accounts of the unfolding lead problem. For example, when panel members asked why WASA was able to invalidate some high-level samples in 2000 to avoid exceeding the federal lead standard, Welsh said the EPA never approved that action.
WASA deputy general manager, Michael Marcotte, responded by saying WASA's water quality manager threw out the tests in consultation with regional officials and that "should be no surprise to EPA."
Welsh, the regional official from the EPA, said WASA may have violated regulations by invalidating the test results. He said the office is also reviewing whether WASA violated the regulations with its "highly ineffective" public notification in 2002 when lead tests reached unsafe levels.
Norton said WASA placed its notice of lead problems in a small-print reference at the back of a brochure. WASA also deleted federally required phrases such as "health risk" and "unhealthy lead levels" that are supposed to ensure that residents understand lead poses a danger to humans, Norton said.
"This was clearly done deliberately," she told WASA officials. "You chose to do it in a way that was the least effective for people to know what was happening."
WASA General Manager Jerry N. Johnson said he did not know why the notification was written in such a way.
"I take full responsibility," he said.
WASA Chairman Glenn S. Gerstell stressed that the aqueduct is responsible for keeping the water from becoming corrosive. Thomas Jacobus, the manager of the aqueduct, said the EPA approved the corrosion treatment.
Moran said Northern Virginia residents now have reason to doubt earlier government claims that their water was fine. He said hundreds of thousands of people in the region could have been drinking unsafe water for years.