Getting The Lead Out? The D.C. Tap Water Crisis One Year Later

In June 2003, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) issued a report, "What's on Tap," that found that the drinking water in Washington, D.C., and several other cities was in precarious shape, and that lead, bacteria and certain other contaminants were of increasing concern in the District.2 The tap water problems in D.C. received only modest local media attention at the time, but that was about to change.

On Saturday, January 31, 2004, Washingtonians collectively dropped their jaws at a banner Washington Post headline announcing that thousands of city homes' tap water contained unsafe levels of lead and the public had not been informed about it.2 The local water utility, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), had done everything it could to keep the facts from city residents and city officials. This revelation triggered public outrage, investigations by the City Council, Congress and others, and led to embarrassing finger-pointing by city and federal officials. A new coalition of citizens formed, calling itself "Lead Emergency Action for the District," or LEAD. The LEAD coalition called upon WASA and other authorities to take a series of specific steps to remedy the lead crisis. This report provides a brief review of what we have learned over the past year, and what still needs to be done.

Systemic Problems at WASA, Health Department, Corps, and EPA

The D.C. tap water lead crisis spawned an array of investigations, including one by the Washington Post, which culminated in more than 100 articles3, as well as published reports by: (1) former Deputy U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the law firm Covington & Burling, chartered by the WASA board of directors;4 (2) the non-profit D.C. Appleseed Center, requested by City Councilwoman Carol Schwartz;5 (3) the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Region 3;6 (4) the D.C. inspector general;7 (5) the D.C. City Council's Public Works Committee and Councilwoman Schwartz;8 (6) the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)9; and the D.C. Government's Interagency Task Force on Lead in Drinking Water.10 While we will not attempt to fully summarize all of the findings of these reports, several key findings, common themes, and recommendations are worth noting.

WASA consistently misled the public, often in violation of EPA rules. WASA has repeatedly failed to notify the public about its lead and other drinking water problems, or has affirmatively misled the public about these problems. WASA's refusal to play straight with the public has lead to virtually no public confidence in the utility. These omissions and outright misstatements continue to this day. Examples include WASA's:

  • Decision in 2000-2001 to illegally "invalidate" test results showing high lead levels to avoid having to report that they exceeded EPA's action level and publicly report the problem.11

  • Failure to follow EPA regulations and to use common sense to notify the public about the extent of the city's lead in tap water problem from 2002 to 2004, and its repeated statements that the water was safe, even when WASA admits it exceeded EPA's action level.12

  • Misleading proclamation in February 2004 that its tests showed school lead levels were safe, when subsequent WASA tests completed in accordance with EPA protocols in April (after criticism that the first round was misleading) showed 28 schools had unsafe water fountains or taps.13

  • Decisions to unjustifiably downplay risks. To quote the report to WASA's board of directors by its own internal investigator, Eric Holder, "WASA management made decisions to downplay some lead-monitoring issues in its public communications."14

  • Continuing failures to honestly advise the public about tap water problems and their health implications throughout much of 2004, such as WASA head Jerry Johnson's statements at public forums that lead in city tap water presents no public health risk and that it is a crisis manufactured by the media.

  • Failure to properly test for lead and correctly notify citizens with high lead levels of their results. On January 14, 2005, EPA issued a supplemental administrative order to WASA (to which WASA agreed). The order stated that WASA had violated federal law by asserting that the water in more than 400 District homes had safe levels of lead and by failing to replace those lead service lines.15

WASA repeatedly violated the EPA rules on testing for lead. For example, WASA illegally "invalidated" lead samples in 2000 to 2001, used an unlawful testing protocol that flushed lead service lines for five minutes before testing them to avoid finding high lead levels and having to replace pipe lines (which triggered the EPA's January 2005 supplemental administrative order), and it used a testing protocol that flushed school taps before testing them, contrary to the established EPA protocol for school tests. These and other actions show a pattern of inadvertent or intentional behavior that violated EPA rules and misled EPA and the public.

WASA failed to aggressively complete full lead service line replacements. WASA apparently first violated EPA's rules requiring lead service line replacement in 2001 and 2002, and then in 2003 sought to use a loophole in EPA's rules that allows utilities to avoid replacing lead service lines if they were tested and found to supply water containing less lead than the EPA Lead Action Level (LAL). This problem was exacerbated by WASA's use of the unlawful protocol noted above. WASA's board of directors commendably has now directed WASA management to replace the WASA-owned portion of all lead service lines in the District. However, WASA is leaving it up to individual residents to replace the portion of the lead service line between the meters and their homes. Testing shows that elevated lead contamination in many homes will continue even after a partial lead service line replacement, prompting NRDC and LEAD Coalition members to urge full lead service line replacement for all lines.

WASA and the Army Corps of Engineers' Washington Aqueduct Division failed to promptly respond to the mounting lead problem. Despite clear indications as early as 2000 and 2001 showing alarming increases in lead levels in the District, WASA and the Corps (which collects and treats the water and then pumps it into WASA's distribution pipes) failed to aggressively step in and change their corrosion control treatment to reduce lead levels. Only after the news media blew the whistle in 2004 did WASA, the Corps, and EPA move with the necessary speed to address the problem.

WASA failed to effectively communicate with the District's Health Department and health-care providers, and Health Department fails to efficiently respond. WASA has repeatedly failed to effectively involve the D.C. Department of Health (DOH) in ongoing operations and when violations or other potentially health-threatening events occur. For example, the Holder report, the Appleseed report, and several other investigations found that there is an urgent need for better communications between WASA and DOH. Yet WASA's Jerry Johnson has rejected calls for a written agreement between WASA and DOH on how to handle crises and improve ongoing communications between the two agencies. In addition, even when WASA or EPA did notify DOH of the lead problem, DOH failed to act efficiently or effectively. Both DOH's director and environmental program head have left, creating an opportunity for improvement. WASA brought in a health advisor from George Washington University Medical Center, but has yet to establish an effective written outreach agreement with health care providers to inform them in the event of a serious water quality problem.

WASA has little or no health expertise on staff or its board, and responsibility for ensuring water quality and health protection is diffuse. Many of the independent investigations found that the lack of clear lines of accountability and responsibility within WASA for ensuring health protection and water quality is a serious problem. The lack of public health expertise on staff and on its board of directors only exacerbates the problem.

Serious shortcomings in EPA's lead rules and in the Safe Drinking Water Act cripple the lead in drinking water program. Several of the investigations, including the Holder report and the Appleseed report, and hearings in Congress, identified significant deficiencies in EPA's lead in drinking water program and its regulations. The EPA lead in tap water rules and program establish a complex scheme where up to 10 percent of tested households can exceed the agency's Lead Action Level (LAL) before additional action is required to reduce lead levels, and also requires certain notifications to be issued to the public about lead. The weaknesses of the program are legion, as the D.C. and many other examples illustrate. For example, the public notification provisions are clearly ineffective even if fully followed, and the structure of the rule and monitoring requirements need to be simplified and strengthened.

EPA's oversight of WASA and other cities has been poor. The Holder report, Appleseed report, and other independent reviews, as well as congressional hearing testimony from NRDC and others, have shown that before the Washington Post blew the lid off the lead problem in D.C., EPA took what can only be called a lackadaisical attitude about the District's lead problems. Moreover, the Post documented that widespread violations of the lead rule by dozens of other cities have gone unaddressed, finding: "Cities across the country are manipulating the results of tests used to detect lead in water, violating federal law and putting millions of Americans at risk of drinking more of the contaminant than their suppliers are reporting." 16

EPA, the Centers for Disease Control, and D.C. Government commendably established a joint lead task force, with citizen participation, to evaluate the extent of lead poisoning from all sources in the District, and especially its impact on low-income African-American and Latino households. EPA also funded a lead outreach program in the city, which coordinates this task force. This is an important, positive development that should be commended.

WASA continues to resist meaningful integration of the public into its decision-making. Despite pressure from independent investigators and from the LEAD coalition, WASA has failed to meaningfully involve the public in its decision-making. While WASA's usual response to this criticism is to note that its board meetings are open to the public and that it held a series of public briefings on the lead crisis, such one-way communications in unbalanced forums do little to foster serious and meaningful dialogue.

Other Water Quality Problems in the District

The renewed focus on drinking water quality in D.C. has focused the spotlight on other problems with the District's water.

Bacterial contamination and the risk of pathogens. In NRDC's June 2003 report, it documented that there was a creeping increase in total coliform bacteria levels in the District's water supply. Total coliform is a group of bacteria that are used as an indicator of possible fecal contamination or possible regrowth of pathogenic bacteria in the system's pipes after disinfection. At that time, WASA admitted to no violations for several years, but data showed that peak coliform levels were gradually beginning to approach the EPA standard. EPA's standard requires that no more than 5 percent of total coliform bacteria can be detected in a city's water each month.

Many city residents remember past problems with bacteria and possible pathogens in the city's water supply that triggered violation notices and boil water alerts in 1993 and again in 1995 and 1996. In 2004, WASA violated the total coliform standard in September, triggering a mandatory public notification.17 While EPA officials note that levels have since dropped, NRDC remains deeply concerned about potential bacteria and pathogen contamination of the D.C. water supply. This is in part because the Corps' monitoring for parasites such as Cryptosporidium is infrequent because it does not use advanced treatment such as ultraviolet light or ozone that is known to kill chlorine-resistant parasites like Crypto.

An NRDC employee whose immune system was compromised drank D.C. tap water and died in November 2004; Crypto was listed on his death certificate as a contributing factor in his death. While it is not possible to confirm the source of the Crypto, tap water must be a primary suspect. It is virtually impossible to determine the number of District residents who become ill from Crypto and other potentially waterborne pathogens. The lack of public health infrastructure and D.C. Department of Health's inattention to this issue makes it impossible to ensure accurate and complete testing and reporting.

NRDC also is concerned about potential microbial pathogens because WASA has repeatedly failed to fully flush all of its pipes using unidirectional flushing (UDF), which is the most effective way to assure that the city's pipes are cleaned of bacteria and other pathogens that can regrow in the distribution system. Even after EPA ordered WASA to do a complete system UDF flush when it approved the city's new 2004 corrosion control plan,18 WASA failed to comply with this order.19 We are concerned that bacteria and potentially pathogen levels may again creep up as temperatures increase in 2005 (microbes often thrive in warmer water), particularly if WASA fails to properly complete UDF.

Rocket fuel perchlorate in D.C. tap water. It was recently revealed that perchlorate, the toxic component of rocket fuel and certain munitions, has been found in groundwater tests adjacent to the D.C. water supply's main Dalecarlia Reservoir.20 The Corps of Engineers was slow to act on this finding until publicity spurred it into at least doing further testing. There are reports that nearby buried munitions from World War I may contain perchlorate, but the Corps has stated that it will likely be many years before it removes any of these munitions.

Subsequent to this revelation, the Corps had repeatedly assured the public that there was no risk that the perchlorate could get into the city's water supply. Despite its assurances, testing of water at the treatment plant has revealed perchlorate at levels of as high as 1.8 parts per billion (ppb).21 The draft EPA safety level, issued in January 2002, is 1 ppb. No final standard has been adopted yet for perchlorate. A recent National Academy of Sciences study suggested that very low perchlorate levels may pose risks to pregnant women and infants (after adjustment for body weight and consumption of perchlorate from all sources), suggesting that there is indeed a risk to at least some District residents.

Cancer-causing and potentially miscarriage- and birth defect-inducing chlorination byproducts in D.C. tap water. The Army Corps continues to use old-fashioned treatment, including heavy doses of chlorine as its primary disinfectant. Chlorine is an important and generally effective disinfectant for killing bacteria and some viruses, but when used on water containing substantial amounts of organic matter (such as broken down leaves and runoff in the Potomac River water used in D.C.), it creates significant levels of a family of toxic chemical known as chlorination byproducts. Chlorination byproducts have been linked to cancer, including bladder cancer, and potentially to miscarriages, low birth weight, and certain birth defects.

Rather than following the course of some other cities, such as Seattle, which are switching to modern treatment (such as ultraviolet light, ozone, granular activated carbon, or membrane treatment) that would nearly eliminate these chemicals from our water supply, the Corps instead decided to use a cheap band-aid solution. Instead of modernizing, the Corps decided to add ammonia after chlorination, forming chloramines and thereby modestly reducing the creation of these chlorination byproducts to levels somewhat below the current weak EPA standard. This on-the-cheap solution appears to have backfired, because the switch to chloramines apparently contributed to the lead in drinking water problem in the District.

The levels of chlorination byproducts in city water still are a health concern. EPA has agreed to strengthen the current standard in a now-overdue rule, and evidence continues to mount of the reproductive and cancer risks posed by these chemicals.


While the various independent reports all provide many detailed recommendations, LEAD believes that some of the most important include:

  • WASA should immediately name a new staff management team that has public health protection as its first priority.

  • WASA's board and the Army Corps of Engineers, in cooperation with EPA and citizens, should establish an independent panel of experts and independent citizen representatives to conduct a top-to-bottom review of all treatment, distribution system, and infrastructure replacement issues. This should include a complete review of available options for installing advanced treatment such as ultraviolet light, ozone, granular activated carbon, membranes and other technologies. The team also should review the distribution operation, maintenance.

  • WASA should complete unidirectional flushing of the entire system every year.

  • WASA should adopt an infrastructure replacement plan that assures that aging pipes and components such as valves, pumps and other components are regularly replaced before they fail. As required in other cities such as Los Angeles and Bangor, Maine, the District should install only completely lead-free components (i.e., less than 0.2 percent lead).

  • WASA should immediately embrace an "open book" policy and be completely forthcoming with all water quality data, and should rely upon independent experts to characterize health risks. WASA should stop downplaying risks posed by water quality problems.

  • WASA's board should include several individuals with expertise in public health and at least one member with an engineering background.

  • WASA should enter into a written agreement with the Department of Health and EPA, as well as with major institutions in its service area responsible for providing health care (especially to vulnerable individuals) on how to handle water quality problems.

  • WASA should establish a public outreach and communication plan that meaningfully involves citizens or the agency is destined to continue to repeat its failures. The plan should include providing new or replacement filters to all families with elevated lead levels or lead service lines.

  • The mayor should make protecting drinking water and the environmental a higher priority. He should insist upon accountability at WASA, and should assist the WASA Board in cleaning house at WASA's senior management level.

  • The Corps should immediately survey the area around Dalecarlia Reservoir for buried munitions, and should promptly remove any that are found. The Corps also should comprehensively test the raw water, groundwater, and treated water on an ongoing basis for perchlorate. It should also install modern, state-of-the-art treatment for disinfection and removal of contaminants.

  • EPA should take aggressive enforcement action and fine WASA for its chronic failure to comply with the agency's lead and total coliform rules. EPA also should complete a full criminal investigation into WASA's violations. If criminal activity occurred, EPA and the Justice Department should proceed with prosecution.

  • EPA should overhaul its lead rule to make its public notification provisions more effective, and strengthen and simplify the standard. We support a strict at the tap maximum contaminant level for lead.

  • Congress should enact the Jeffords/Holmes-Norton legislation (S. 2377/H.R. 4268) requiring an overhaul and strengthening of the EPA lead-in-drinking-water rules, and banning all uses of lead in any fixtures, fittings and other plumbing parts.

  • The D.C. City Council should adopt the relevant provisions of the Jeffords/Holmes-Norton lead legislation as city code requirements for WASA and the Washington Aqueduct.

  • The City Council should create a permanent citizen water board to oversee WASA and the Washington Aqueduct, and address longstanding problems with D.C.'s water supply.

  • The City Council must improve its oversight of WASA and the Army Corps' Washington Aqueduct. The council should insist upon the top-to-bottom review of water quality, treatment, infrastructure, and threats to the city's water supply, and conduct comprehensive oversight hearings on the results of that review.