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D.C. Struggles to Get Lead Out

Washington residents are upset at officials' slow response to tests showing highly elevated levels of lead in many homes' tap water.

March 08, 2004|Elizabeth Shogren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Like thousands of homeowners in the nation's capital, Anne Peters was shocked to learn in late January that her tap water tested many times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's standard for lead.

Since then, she has been cooking with bottled water, giving fluoridated bottled water to her 4-year-old to drink and, like many parents, worrying about the lead her son ingested in the first years of his life, when exposure is most likely to harm physical and mental development.

"You expect that your water coming from the tap in the nation's capital is going to be safe to drink," said Peters, 42, an attorney, who had always used unfiltered tap water before learning that hers had six times more lead than the EPA standard. "This shouldn't be happening in the District of Columbia -- or in any other city."

Last fall, the city's water utility tested the water in more than 6,000 houses. More than two-thirds had lead levels above the EPA's standard of 15 parts per billion, with 2,287 houses over 50 parts per billion and 157 over 300 parts per billion. The water in one house measured 24,000 parts per billion, and in another, 48,000.

EPA officials said that Washington's lead water crisis was the worst in the nation since a federal law began requiring water utilities to check lead levels in homes in 1991. Residents and some members of Congress blame the municipal water utility, which is called the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority; the federal EPA, which has primary supervisory authority over the city's water; and the Army Corps of Engineers, which runs the city's water treatment facilities.

In a periodic report in late 2002, the city notified the EPA that half of the 53 samples taken by the water utility had lead levels higher than the federal standard.

But it was not until late last month that the city warned pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under 6 to drink bottled or filtered water and have their blood tested if they were living in one of the 23,000 houses with lead pipes bringing water to them from the main water lines.

Residents are furious that city and federal officials moved so slowly.

"They're totally incompetent; they don't know how to communicate," said Kate Ahmann, 36, whose water tested higher than 300 parts per billion. "This has been very scary for us."

For weeks, the water utility urged residents to run tap water for a minute before using it for drinking or cooking. Now it tells people to run their taps for 10 minutes; running them for only one minute could mean drinking the water that sat in the lead service lines the longest and became the most contaminated.

Donald Welsh, administrator of the EPA regional office with authority over Washington's drinking water system, told a congressional hearing Friday that the utility had "failed in its responsibility" to alert the public to the risk of lead in the drinking water. He and other EPA officials also conceded that the agency had failed to ensure that the utility's efforts were effective.

The reason for the high lead levels remained uncertain, but officials suspected recent changes in water treatment.

Lead levels in Washington's drinking water were high in the early 1990s, but not nearly as high as now. At the time, there was a choice between reducing the water's acidity and adding phosphates. The city opted to reduce the acidity because it was cheaper and apparently less hazardous. Phosphates provide a protective coating for lead pipes, but they also can pollute waterways and hurt fish and shellfish.

"We believed [that] would do the job, and it appears for many years that was true," said Thomas P. Jacobus, a local U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official.

In 2000, the city switched the chemicals it used for disinfecting its water. Instead of chlorine, which has byproducts linked to cancer, it used chloramine, a chemical that includes chlorine and ammonia. Some officials now suspect that chloramine might have made the water more corrosive, causing more lead to leach into tap water. But in 2000, Jacobus said, there was no reason to think that chloramine would have a corrosive effect.

Jacobus and officials from the water utility and the EPA predicted that phosphates would be added to the water in the next couple of months to coat the lead pipes.

"Hopefully, we can get D.C. residents back to some semblance of normalcy soon -- within a period of months," said Jon Capacasa, the EPA's regional director of water protection.

But officials at the water utility and the corps warned that it could take many months or even a few years before the phosphates do the trick.

The utility was also considering plans for replacing the estimated 23,000 lead service lines, as required by federal law. But now there are concerns that replacing the part of the lead lines owned by the city while leaving the part owned by private citizens could actually increase the lead coming through the tap.

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