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Natural Resources Defense Council 
Press release on lead in tap water
February 26, 2004




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Press contact: Erik Olson, 202-289-2360, or Elliott Negin, 202-289-2405

District Residents and National Health Advocates Demand Emergency Action on D.C. Lead-in-Tap-Water Crisis

WASHINGTON (February 26, 2004) - A broad coalition of local residents and national health and environmental advocates today demanded that the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal and local officials better protect Washington residents from lead contamination in their drinking water. At a press conference at the Plymouth Congregational Church in Northeast D.C., the coalition, Lead Emergency Action for the District (LEAD), called for authorities to take 10 specific emergency steps to address the problem.

"D.C. residents are outraged by the feeble local and federal response to our lead crisis," said Erik D. Olson, a senior attorney at NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council), a national conservation group and member of LEAD. "We have the Keystone Cops at EPA regulating the Three Stooges: the Water and Sewer Authority, the Army Corps of Engineers and the D.C. Health Department. They're all pointing fingers at each other while D.C citizens are bewildered and legitimately worried about their families' health."

LEAD cited a number of instances where WASA failed to adequately address the problem and misinformed District residents. For example, WASA has been chronically slow to warn District residents and offer sound advice. Just yesterday, the agency finally cautioned that pregnant women and children under six should not drink tap water if they have lead service lines, advice the coalition called "too little too late." The coalition also denounced WASA's recent test of lead levels in 752 fountains and faucets at 154 D.C. public schools as "incompetent at best, and willfully misleading at worst." WASA officials conceded that they generally ran water for 10 minutes before testing for lead, which flushed out the high lead levels in virtually all cases. Such an approach is contrary to standard EPA and scientific lead testing protocols, according to LEAD, and gave District parents a false sense that there is no lead problem in schools.

The LEAD coalition urged federal and local authorities to immediately take the following steps:

  1. EPA must immediately take enforcement action against WASA to protect District residents, and should initiate a full criminal and civil enforcement investigation. EPA has primary responsibility for overseeing the safety of the District's drinking water supply, but has done little. EPA should order WASA to take several specific actions, including conducting scientifically sound tests at houses and apartments around the city. EPA also should order WASA to clearly inform the public about the extent of the lead service line problem, release all local test results, and candidly discuss lead's health effects and other water problems.
  2. EPA must immediately order the Army Corps of Engineers' Washington Aqueduct to aggressively treat D.C. drinking water to reduce lead leaching. EPA also should immediately arrange an independent review of the corrosion control plan, and establish deadlines for completing the review and implementing its recommendations.
  3. WASA must ensure that all drinking water fountains and faucets in D.C. schools and day care centers are adequately retested within two weeks.
  4. EPA and Congress should help WASA and the D.C. government fund home treatment units or bottled water for pregnant women and children under the age of six in households that have lead service lines or lead in drinking water at levels above the EPA "action level."
  5. WASA should expedite replacement of lead service lines, and the City Council should review policies for replacing homeowners' portions of the lines.
  6. 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.
  7. The City Council must improve its oversight of WASA.
  8. The mayor should make protecting drinking water and the environmental a higher priority.
  9. Representatives from citizen, health and conservation groups should sit on the blue ribbon commission investigating WASA.
  10. The EPA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, D.C. Department of Health, and D.C. City Council should establish a joint task force, with full 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.

"Unless the federal and local governments take the steps demanded by Lead Emergency Action for the District coalition, we are headed for a series of water crises that will severely threaten public health and further undermine public confidence," said Olson. "It's time for our public officials to stop pointing fingers and start cleaning up the problem. It's time for candor, not a coverup."

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 1 million members and e-activists nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Santa Monica and San Francisco.

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