WASA and the Army Corps of Engineers get an F, Mayor Williams gets a D

WASHINGTON (January 28, 2005) -- The response by local and federal officials to the District of Columbia's lead-in-tap-water crisis generally received poor to failing grades today in a report card released by a coalition of city residents and health and environmental advocates. The coalition, Lead Emergency Action for the District (LEAD), released the report card on the steps of D.C.'s City Hall to mark the one-year anniversary of when residents first became aware that their tap water had high levels of lead.

"After a year we expected to see more progress, but tens of thousands of District residents still can't safely drink their tap water," said Erik Olson, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a coalition member. "Meanwhile, the Water and Sewer Authority is still being cited for violating the law. Public outrage has forced a few grudging changes, but not one person at the water utilities or EPA has been held accountable, not one word of the rules or law has changed, and not one penny of fines has been assessed. Somebody has to step up and take responsibility, and that should have happened months ago." (For a copy of the report card, contact Elizabeth Heyd at

"We've seen very little progress in our community a year later, many of our families are still at risk, and our filters are running out," noted Mary Williams, a local civil rights lawyer and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner from Southwest Washington. "The same system and people are still in place, and we're not hearing any urgency or real community outreach from WASA or the city."

Paul Schwartz, National Policy Coordinator with Clean Water Action added, "This is the capitol of the richest nation on earth, yet many D.C. residents are afraid to pour a glass of water for their children. This crisis is an opportunity for D.C. to be a shining example for the Nation by finally getting the lead out."

"Parents around the city have to live with the anguish of having given contaminated water to their children," said Yanna Lambrinidou, founder of Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, a coalition member. "And yet some of the very officials who knowingly allowed this to happen have denied responsibility and downplayed the seriousness of the crisis. We deserve better."

LEAD today gave officials at the Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Washington Aqueduct, which collects and treats the city's water, an F. District Mayor Anthony Williams, the Environmental Protection Agency, and several members of Congress did not fare much better due to their failure to adequately protect the public. There were some bright spots, however. The coalition applauded, among others, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), Vermont Sen. James Jeffords (I), and the Washington Post for its aggressive coverage of the issue.

WASA's general manager, Jerry Johnson, earned an F because the authority violated EPA rules regarding testing for lead and notifying the public about health threats. WASA also repeatedly downplayed the extent of the problem and misinformed the public about the implications of test results. WASA Board Chairman Glenn Gerstell received a D because the board failed to effectively oversee WASA management, although it did vote to spend millions to partially replace all District lead service lines after the crisis publicly erupted.

Mayor Williams received a D because he has rarely, if ever, spoken publicly about the issue, nor has he called for the resignation of any WASA officials or held them accountable. The mayor also unlawfully excluded the public from participating in the Interagency Task Force-his one tangible response to the crisis-which issued a report that failed to significantly critique WASA's actions.

EPA regional office head Donald Welsh, whose office has oversight over WASA, received a C- because his office failed to make sure WASA was complying with EPA's lead rule before the Washington Post broke the story last January. After the first story appeared, and despite the fact that the agency found repeated WASA violations, EPA did not levy any fines, file an enforcement suit, or use its emergency enforcement powers to protect District residents. EPA negotiated two administrative orders with WASA that included no fines, and never held WASA truly accountable. EPA officials did meet with local citizens and modestly funded a broad lead outreach effort in the District. Meanwhile, the LEAD coalition gave Mike Leavitt, EPA's recently departed administrator, a D because his agency refused to acknowledge the extent of lead-contaminated water nationally, or effectively respond or amend its tap water rules, even after the Washington Post reported that the problem is nationwide.

Tom Jacobus, head of the Army Corps of Engineers' Washington Aqueduct Division (WAD), received an F because the aqueduct consistently failed to aggressively treat D.C. drinking water to reduce lead leaching and other tap water quality problems, and has always opted for the cheapest solutions that often are ineffective. WAD's lax attitude is largely responsible for the District's water woes. Instead of adopting modern treatment to reduce lead leaching -- such as using orthophosphate -- and instead of using advanced methods to kill pathogens and reduce chlorine byproducts -- such as using activated carbon with ozone or ultraviolet light -- WAD opted to use chloramines, a cheap solution. These apparently contributed substantially to the District's lead problems. WAD responded after the crisis became public by treating the water with orthophosphate, but has announced no plans to modernize the rest of its treatment technology.

At the D.C. City Council, Public Works and Environment Committee Chairwoman Carol Schwartz (R) received a B- for her unflinching oversight of WASA after the Post broke the story. Before the problem became public, however, she failed to aggressively oversee WASA and overlooked warning signs of brewing problems. She also has enacted no legislation in response to the lead crisis, and has not forced any WASA officials to resign. Meanwhile, City Council Chairwoman Linda Cropp (D) received only a C- because she has largely sat idly by, while Schwartz and other Council members hammered away at WASA and conducted investigations.

As for Congress, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), and Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) both received a D for doing little more than holding a hearing and then standing in the way when other members of their committees tried to adopt legislation to address the lead-in-drinking-water problem. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) received a B for initiating aggressive oversight headings on the lead problem but his committee has no jurisdiction to amend relevant laws. Sen. Jim Jeffords and Del. Eleanor Holmes-Norton received an A for aggressively overseeing EPA and WASA, and for introducing tough legislation to fix the District's and nation's lead problem.

Each of the Washington Post reporters who followed the story -- including David Nakamura, Carol Leonnig, Jo Becker and D'Vera Cohn -- received an A for aggressively ferreting out the facts and not accepting the party line from District and federal officials.

The LEAD coalition also gave gold stars to City Council members Jim Graham (D) and Adrian Fenty (D) for their response to the crisis on behalf of their constituents, and to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), and Rep. Hilda Solis (D-Calif.) for their leadership in helping to draft and cosponsoring strong legislation to respond to the District and national lead crisis, and for pressuring WASA and EPA to do their job.

The coalition made a series of recommendations to clean up the lead problem. First and foremost, it urged the City Council and Mayor to hold WASA accountable for its failures by doing a housecleaning of senior management. It also called for an independent blue ribbon review of WASA's and the Washington Aqueduct's management, infrastructure, treatment practices, public outreach, and operation and maintenance. The coalition also urged Congress and the city council to enact lead legislation that will permanently fix the lead rules and public outreach problems, and urged EPA to overhaul its lead regulations and to hold WASA accountable by levying fines and completing a criminal investigation into whether there were intentional violations of law.