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Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton
US House of Representatives, Committee on Government Reform
Hearing on lead in DC WASA water: Public Confidence, Down the Drain: The Federal Role in Ensuring Safe Drinking Water in the District of Columbia
March 5, 2004




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Congress of the United States
House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515

Statement of Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton
Committee on Government Reform
"Public Confidence, Down the Drain: The Federal Role in Ensuring Safe Drinking Water in the District"

March 5, 2004

Thank you Mr. Chairman for holding today's hearing on lead in the region's water. The stakes for one million residents in the District of Columbia and Virginia could not be higher. However, the direct implications for jurisdictions throughout the country are already apparent, even in what we have learned thus far about the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority crisis, about Environmental Protection Agency regulations and monitoring, and about the Corps of Engineers' practices in purifying the water here. Although Washington is the political capital in the midst of a political season, people here wake up looking not for the latest poll or primary results but for the day's tally of lead in the water. What is most troubling about what has occurred is that, 1) mistakes in judgment and procedure were apparently made at every important juncture, as those involved now concede, and 2) any one of the three agencies could have caught the problem much earlier. All deferred to one another, creating an appearance of collusion and suppression of information. The response that there was no such intention may well be true, but it will not be sufficient to restore the confidence of the public and the Congress in the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers Aqueduct operation. Therefore, this hearing must be primarily concerned with the measures all three must take to restore the needed confidence so that residents, commuters and visitors will not need to ask the question they typically ask when they visit a developing country, namely, "Is the water safe to drink here?"

Beginning in 1996 WASA recreated itself from top to bottom. I have witnessed a vast improvement in the agency and have been pleased with what can only be called its complete transformation, even resurrection. I truly regret that WASA has allowed its new reputation to be severely tarnished. Far more important to the public than WASA's structural changes and even its new, very good investment bond rating is whether the end product, our water, is safe.

However, I am even more concerned about the actions of the responsible federal agencies. The EPA plays a more important role in safeguarding drinking water here than in any jurisdiction except Wyoming, because EPA is in effect both the state and the federal environmental monitor. Thus, when EPA fails here, it fails twice. There is no further watchdog, as when a state fails in its environmental policing, because here EPA is charged with total responsibility for our water. With the nation's official lead environmental agency giving unique, direct oversight to our local water, one would suppose that ours would be the safest water in the country. Who can believe that now?

The Washington Aqueduct was built more than a 100 years ago by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide our water and has been run by the Corps ever since. We are totally dependant on the Corps' judgment concerning what goes into our water, subject, of course, to EPA regulations. Here, of course, is where the plot thickens. Were each of the three agencies playing their statutory roles, tantamount to a checks and balances system? Or was the WASA-EPA-Aqueduct connection a closed circle where each simply reinforced one another, or acted as enablers?

Of the many issues raised by today's hearing, three appear to be overarching. First, are EPA's science and its regulations simply wrong? For example, how can the public know that its water is safe when the EPA allows WASA and other water systems to keep sampling once they discover high lead levels until they dilute the harmful findings? Even then, how can EPA justify the most significant remediation it requires, namely the replacement of lead service lines in homes, when now lead has been found in homes with lead, copper and brass lines? Has the EPA ignored the best science available to the agency?

Second, has the main focus thus far on service lines in older homes been wrong? At the EPA briefing I had, it was not long before I wondered whether the switch from chlorine to chloramines had caused lead to leach from the pipes. When sometimes, even more lead appeared in some homes after service lines were replaced and lead was found in the water in newer homes, this hypothesis became stronger. If so, we have two problems-dangerous lead lines and corrosivity of lead from chloramines that could be affecting us all. What was the Washington Aqueduct thinking when it switched purifying chemicals and did the Corps know what it was doing?

Third, what is the appropriate public health response when lead is found in water? From the failure to follow regulations requiring public notification until today, all three agencies have seemed to be making it up or devising remedies as they go along. The result is a dangerously confused public. If nothing else comes from this hearing, I believe the public must know what to do until the problem is fixed. For example, filters that screen only up to 20,000 parts per billion of lead (ppb) can hardly work when much higher levels have already been found.

In 1993 in the face of a less serious water scare, EPA used its emergency authority under section 1431 of the Safe Drinking Water Act. This authority gives EPA broad authority to take whatever actions are necessary to protect public health. When EPA used its emergency powers in 1993, it knew what to order. Today, however, EPA itself has become part of the problem, calling into question whether it can also be part of the solution. Nevertheless the agency cannot ignore its mandated statutory charge. Given the obvious confusion, the three agencies appear yet to have defined the problem and its causes, much less the solution. At the very least, however, the public must get valid, coherent instructions concerning what to do while the three agencies are figuring it out. Particularly those in vulnerable populations or are of low or modest income must get the assistance required to assure their drinking water is safe. If something less than the use of EPA's emergency powers is in order in a crisis of this magnitude, I will need to hear the alternative spelled out this morning.

I thank today's witnesses for their testimony and look forward to hearing from them.

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