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Donald S. Welsh, US EPA Regional Administrator, Region III
Testimony to the Committee on Public Works and the Environment on
Lead levels in tap water

February 25, 2004




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Testimony of
Donald S. Welsh
U.S. EPA Regional Administrator, Region III
before the District of Columbia Council
Committee on Public Works and the Environment

February 25, 2004

Good afternoon. My name is Donald Welsh and I am the Regional Administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency located in Philadelphia. Pennsylvania. The mid-Atlantic region is responsible for the oversight of the environmental programs in the Commonwealths of Pennsylvania and Virginia, and the States of Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today regarding the lead levels in the District of Columbia residents' tap water.

We welcome the chance to meet with you to discuss the circumstances and events of this matter and to detail the actions we are taking to continue to reduce exposure to lead of the citizens of the District and to enhance effectiveness in the future.

While the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority took a variety of actions to address the public education requirements in our lead and copper regulations, it is obvious that many who needed to know about potential lead threats did not know.

This is clearly unacceptable. The citizens of Washington, D.C. demand and deserve much better. And we will work hard in our oversight capacity with D.C. WASA to see that it happens.

I have implemented a series of steps to help ensure that residents get the information and answers they need. and that faster headway is made in determining and fixing the cause of this problem.

I have assigned additional staff to assist my Water Protection Division with communications and technical support for this effort. I have also created a multidivisional team in the region to work on strategies that will help WASA move forward in a positive way. We are also conducting an in-depth review of WASA's compliance in this matter.

On the issue of outreach to residents, EPA Region III is more closely monitoring the activities of D.C. WASA and taking its own actions to provide information to the public.

We share the view that WASA could have done more to effectively communicate the problem to its customers. When there is an exceedance of the EPA-established action level for lead in drinking water, one of the goals of the federal requirements for public water systems, and the obligation to the public, is that everyone who is potentially exposed to elevated levels of lead is fully aware of that fact and fully understands the steps they need to take to minimize their exposure.

We will look at other steps WASA could have taken to improve the timeliness and effectiveness of its public education and outreach efforts, including direct contact with news media representatives, which is recommended in guidance provided by EPA to all public water systems, including WASA.

We will also look at WASA's responsibility to ensure that system-wide notices effectively inform customers about the lead risk, and we will work to develop best practices recommendations.

We will work with external groups to get a better understanding of how the outreach was received and how to improve on it.

We will complete our review as quickly and as comprehensively as possible and in time for WASA's next Consumer Confidence Report to its customers.

At the same time, EPA is continuing to provide information on our Web site, through our National Safe Drinking Water Hotline, and through the media to help guide consumers.

EPA is also providing assistance in two other areas to address the underlying causes of this problem.

First, the lead service lines themselves, which are the major source of high lead levels, need to be replaced. We are providing financial assistance to WASA, in the form of $8 million in FY 2004 grant funds and $3.7 million in prior year funds to accelerate the replacement of these lines.

Secondly, technical issues regarding the corrosivity of the water, which can increase the levels of lead, need to be resolved. Although extensive studies were performed in the last decade to determine optimal corrosion control technology for the District's water system, it is clearly imperative to take a fresh look at the matter in light of the observed changes in lead levels.

We are working with WASA and the Washington Aqueduct, and with the assistance of other outside technical experts to help determine the correct balance of treatment needed to both reduce corrosivity and maintain the optimum protection against other harmful contaminants that can be found in drinking water.

The expert technical team that EPA has convened has been researching these issues and will report preliminary recommendations to me by March 10. In fact, the team will report on the progress it is making and the elements of the action plan later in this meeting.

On another front, we have initiated contact with the National Nursing Centers Consortium with the goal of establishing a new EPA-sponsored lead prevention program for the district. In addition, EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have provided funding for the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit, which is offering important health information on lead in the D.C. community.

The Environmental Protection Agency shares the serious concerns expressed about the exposure of citizens to lead in drinking water and the importance of all consumers being fully informed and aware of the proper steps to reduce their risk of exposure.

While we are clearly not satisfied with some aspects of the implementation of the Lead and Copper Regulation in this instance, we are encouraged that the rule was effective in identifying problems with. lead in the D.C. drinking water, in affording protections for a number of years, and then detecting when higher levels reoccurred.

Lead in the environment, whether in lead paint, in drinking water or any other avenue of exposure, poses significant risks to health -- particularly to pregnant women and young children.

Lead contamination is prevalent in many of our cities, especially where housing was constructed before the use of high percentages of lead in paint and pipes was discontinued. Reducing all sources of exposure to lead is vital to protecting the health of our citizens.

We will continue to aggressively pursue solutions in these areas, in cooperation with the other agencies and individuals who play a role in providing the public with safe drinking water.

We will not be satisfied until all aspects of this problem are resolved.

At this time, I would be pleased to answer any specific questions you may have. Thank you.

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