[from March 2004 issue]


If things weren’t so scary it might be a plot for a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. Unfortunately, this is serious business indeed. But, unlike so many other things that go wrong in this city, or just get swept under the rug or about which the buck is passed from one bureaucrat to another, this lead in the water business goes much deeper and is far more pervasive than the usual scenario that we citizens have come to know and love to hate.

It’s hard to know where to look first if we are to properly determine accountability. Our immediate gut reaction was to blame “The City”--whatever that really means, but given that the principal agency responsible for delivering the water to our homes is the quasi-independent water and sewer authority (WASA), which means that its day-to-day operations are not really a matter of direct city bureaucracy involvement, it’s not so apparent that fingers can be pointed at a direct executive branch department under the authority of the mayor, such as the public works department.

Maybe the city council should take the heat, but we doubt it. True, the council retains an oversight function, but that is different than an operational function. We note with approval (and gratitude also) the response of at-large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, who chairs the Committee on Public Works. She wasted no time rolling into action once this lead problem was revealed. So far, she has taken appropriate steps to launch the necessary investigations; we suspect that her having conducted her committee hearing with such alacrity was a significant factor in getting WASA to take this matter with such a sudden degree of seriousness--an urgency it had not heretofore evidenced even though it had been aware of the danger since at least 2002. We are not at all convinced that WASA would have engaged the services of highly ethical former U.S. Attorney Eric Holder to chair an investigative panel were it not for the heat applied by Mrs. Schwartz.

Certainly, as facts emerge from behind-the-scenes as WASA, very troubling and serious questions about management competence arise. But what really has stood out, thanks to the recent Washington Post investigation is how WASA actually fired the official who insisted on reporting the excessive lead concentrations to the EPA as she, the holder of that specific job at WASA was required by federal regulation to do. Had she not done so, she would have been in violation of federal law. How can WASA, a state agency subject to federal EPA monitoring and regulatory requirements even think to circumvent its legal responsibility pursuant to federal law?

The managers or officers at WASA whose attempts to prevent their official charged with the responsibility to report excessive lead levels to EPA should be dismissed and subject to federal investigation for what could well be a criminal act.

But, there’s more, apparently. From reports we and the rest of the public have heard, it appears that WASA may well have actually colluded with EPA officials to figure out a way to skirt the legal requirements. If that is true, if EPA is also found to have a hand in this cover up, then the Bush White House will have major explaining to do. And, before the Republican leadership in the House and Senate start bearing down on the DC officials with ultimatums, they had better take a close look at how cavalier their own Republican administration-led EPA seems to be when it comes to protecting the health of ordinary citizens. (Probably the only reason members of Congress are weighing in so mightily on this matter is that they are panicking over the thought that they, too, have been ingesting lead like the rest of us suckers.) And what about George Bush and the foreign dignitaries all being exposed to dangerous “Third World”-like water? Not a good advertisement for the supremacy of the world’s only remaining “superpower,” is it?

And, while we are wondering about the role of the feds in all this, what about the agency that actually mixes the brew that goes into the water before it’s actually delivered to WASA, the distributor? That water provider is, of course, the vaunted Army Corp of Engineers. It is they who draw the water from nature and get it ready for us humans and it is they who control the water filtration plant and the mid-19th century aqueduct through which it makes its way until connecting with the city’s or WASA’s (we’re not really sure who owns what) cast iron pipes that feed to the service lines of either lead or copper or brass.

The bottom line is that no agency at either the local or federal level has properly handled matters nor have they properly anticipated the reality that our 19th century water distribution infrastructure was in need of rebuilding for the modern world. What is to be done now can be nothing less than wholesale replacement of everything. This will be, of course, astronomical in cost, but it must be done and it must not be fobbed off on the DC water customers alone. This is infrastructure stuff, like roads and bridges. Special appropriations from Congress are a must; after all, this is the nation’s capital and Congress has to take responsibility for its safety. Better to start this process now before we discover a dead president in the Lincoln bedroom.