EPA inaction threatens US capital water supply

Most US residents take for granted that their municipal drinking water is safe, but high lead levels in the nation's capital, the failure of the US Environmental Protection Agency and the district's water authority to notify the public and take immediate remedial action should worry the public.

Pamela L. Wolfe, Managing Editor

On 31 January 2004, Washington, D. C. residents discovered from the media that municipal drinking water in the nation's capital city contains high lead levels, but officials in the district's Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to inform consumers of the contamination both authorities knew about since early 2002.

Why didn't the EPA or WASA take immediate action? Inform the public of health risks? Take action to study the problem, recommend solutions and force WASA to make changes in treatment, if necessary, and replace 100-year-old lead pipes?

It is a well-known fact that ingested lead can be particularly damaging to the brain, nervous system and kidneys of foetuses, babies and children. Proper notification would allow consumers to find alternative drinking water options while the EPA, WASA and the US Corps of Engineers solve the problem.

What is the role of an environmental regulatory agency? To oversee declining water quality or to ensure that drinking water quality standards are in compliance with regulations?

Instead WASA fired its water quality manager, Seema S. Bhat, in March 2003 for repeatedly reporting the problem to the EPA, which is responsible for water quality oversight in the district. The EPA made no public announcements regarding the contamination. State officials are responsible for water quality oversight in 49 of the 50 US states, but the EPA assumes this role in Washington, D.C.

WASA claims that Bhat should have gone through the proper chain of command. Ms. Bhat did inform top officials in WASA, but their inaction prompted her to contact the EPA with hopes to get WASA to replace lead service pipes and inform the public.

WASA detected high levels of the toxin back in 2001 and claims to have reported their findings to the EPA in 2002 that lead levels exceeded the agency action level. Bhat claims that testing from an even earlier time frame — July 2000 to June 2001 — indicated lead contamination problems.

The EPA set the lead limit at 15 parts per billion (ppb) in 1991. Random testing conducted between July 2001 and June 2002 revealed that more than 10% of 53 homes sampled exceeded the EPA lead limit. Tests conducted in the summer of 2003 found that lead levels exceeded the 15-ppb limit in 4,075 homes, two-thirds of the 6,118 homes tested by WASA, according to the Washington Post. Lead levels exceeding 50 ppb were found in 2,287 homes, and more than 300 ppb in 157 homes. Some residents were informed by letter months following the inspection; many still have not heard from the authority. Approximately 23,000 homes in Washington, D.C. receive tap water from the water main through lead service pipes.

Drinking water quality is generally good in the USA, but the nation's 54,000 drinking water systems are in decline, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). An annual shortfall of US$ 11 billion is needed to replace or rehabilitate facilities to comply with federal water regulations, but the federal deficit is making infrastructure funds even scarcer.

More than one-third of the nation's surface waters do not meet water quality standards. The major reasons for this situation, says the ASCE, is that "wastewater infrastructure is aging, deteriorating and in need of repair, replacement and upgrading." Federal, state and local funds are insufficient to upgrade infrastructure, but limited funds are being diverted to implement security measures in infrastructure, helping to protect facilities from potential terrorist attacks. Yet the neglect of infrastructure and weak regulatory enforcement can also threaten public security.

The consequences of the Bush administration's lack of support for EPA enforcement in the past three years is clearly evident from DC's current water troubles. I wonder if politicians who normally favour "less government" and a "hands-off" approach to regulatory enforcement reconsidered their position when they turned on the tap after discovering that they've been drinking lead-contaminated tap water for two years?

Pamela L. Wolfe, Managing Editor

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