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Lead Crisis Exposed Problems Within EPA

The nation’s capital will greet Earth Day this year with a lead water crisis. Lead may be the coming attraction or may be playing unnoticed in the water supply elsewhere in the nation.

The drinking water here goes to 1 million residents of the District of Columbia and parts of Northern Virginia and to more than 200,000 employees who work in federal agencies, including Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court. The Safe Drinking Water Act

protects the nation’s drinking water, but much of the focus here has been on a local independent agency, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, which discovered unacceptable levels of lead in the water in 2002 but buried public notice in the fine print of water bills issued an entire year later. Even then, key words required by Environmental Protection Agency regulations such as “unhealthy amounts of lead” and “public health concern” were left out of required public service announcements in 2002 and 2003. These deliberate and inexcusable violations are not the source of the original sin, however. The EPA and its regulations are.

The District’s lead water crisis has uncovered alarming EPA laxity and complicity with the entities it regulates. The pattern has led unavoidably to national anxiety that the EPA strengthen both its regulations and its enforcement of them. The reason for angst well beyond Washington begins with EPA’s role here as not only the federal overseer but also as D.C.’s statutory state environmental agency. EPA stood at the vortex where the crisis could have been prevented. It had direct regulatory control over WASA, as well as the Washington Aqueduct — which supplies and purifies Washington’s water — a federal entity built and operated by the Army Corps of Engineers. The EPA sanctioned everything WASA did, signing off on all of its actions, from the misleading lead testing to the inadequate public notice.

Although no amount of lead in drinking water has been found to be safe, EPA requires public notice and the replacement of 7 percent of lead service lines annually if more than 15 parts per billion of lead is found in the tap water of more than 10 percent of homes. This means that WASA had no obligation to even notify the affected residents of lead levels in July 2001 because only four, or just under the required 10 percent of 50 samples, exceeded the action level of 15 ppb. Yet, two of these homes had levels of more than 100 ppb. Moreover, a system may avoid replacing any service lines by expanding testing in the hope of diluting the 10 percent action level. This tactic backfired on WASA, which then discovered that two-thirds of the resulting sample had high levels of lead.

The EPA is examining the problems of notification, monitoring and remediation the D.C. episode has exposed for their clear national implications. However, EPA needs to do much more, beginning with a formal and complete review of all of its lead regulations and assumptions, including the basic science it should have known. For example, the D.C. experience casts doubt on one of the major EPA-required procedures — replacement of only the publicly owned section of lead service lines. However, if the section on private property remains, the partial replacement may actually increase lead levels, according to experts.

Even if the major problems with WASA were cleared up, however, the lead crisis might remain. Another federal entity, the Army Corps of Engineers, is deeply implicated in the city’s water crisis. The lead problem traces back to the Army Corps’ insistence on installing the lead service lines amid great controversy, even in the 19th century. Many experts believe that the aqueduct’s substitution of chloramines for chlorine in November 2000 to eliminate certain cancer risks may have caused corrosion of lead into the drinking water. EPA did not require a new corrosion control plan in light of the change of chemicals. Belatedly, the aqueduct is adding phosphates to the District’s water in a pilot study that should have preceded the switch in chemicals in the first place.

EPA has reports from fewer than half of the states and therefore cannot identify jurisdictions with some or all of D.C.’s lead water risks. However, the economic fallout on local governments and residents should be enough to make other jurisdictions identify themselves and begin to take action before a lead water crisis develops. Although WASA is an independent agency not under the control of the D.C. government, much of the cost has fallen on the local government and local and regional ratepayers. I am seeking federal appropriation funds, particularly considering that much of the water here goes to federal employees and tourists and because two federal agencies — EPA and the aqueduct — are directly responsible for the crisis. WASA and the Washington Aqueduct were primarily motivated by costs. Now these costs must be paid anyway along with added health costs as well.

Lead episodes like the District’s across the country are probably inevitable unless EPA tightens its regulations and enforcement and develops guidance on the difficult issue of affordable remediation. How should the EPA celebrate Earth Day this year? Do what is necessary to live up to the promise of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) is a member of the Government Reform and Transportation and Infrastructure committees.

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