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Government and People
Councilmember Carol Schwartz
Committee on Public Works and the Environment
Thursday, April 1, 2004
Statement for Public Oversight Hearing on the "Continuation of Performance Oversight of the Water and Sewer Authority and its Lead Service Replacement Program"
Good afternoon. My name is Carol Schwartz and I am Chair of the Council's Committee on Public Works and the Environment. The time is now ___ p.m. and I would like to call to order this meeting of the Committee. I would also like to acknowledge the presence of Councilmembers _____ and _____.
I want to say before we begin that I understand WASA is currently holding meetings with respect to a proposed rate increase for its customers this coming fiscal year. I think it is outrageous that WASA would be attempting to increase rates at this time! This city is now dealing with the problem of lead in some of the residents' drinking water precisely because of WASA's inaction, its insensitivity and its lack of urgency in responding. Now they have the audacity to consider increasing rates on District customers, many of whom have been forced to obtain water filters, run their faucets for ten minutes at a time and play a cat-and-mouse game with WASA regarding determining whether or not a particular residence has a lead service line! Unbelievable!
Both I and Robert Bobb, the city administrator, had specifically told WASA weeks ago not to do this. Instead, WASA, which raised rates by 2.5 percent only six months ago, has arrogantly gone ahead and proceeded to consider a rate increase. Based on what? WASA's stellar performance?
I just want to say to the WASA officials sitting here today that this is extraordinarily poor judgment on your part, and I call on you to cancel any future meetings regarding proposed rate increases on the residents of the District at this time. The Mayor and I have also written to the President and will have letters delivered tomorrow to the appropriate members of the House and Senate requesting that the District and WASA be reimbursed for the costs associated with managing and abating the lead problem. You know this is occurring, so proceeding with a rate increase, and perhaps using this crisis as a basis for its argument in favor of this, is disingenuous at best.
In WASA's August 2003 newsletter What's On Tap, they state that "WASA is pleased to report that ... a proposed 5.0 percent [rate] increase for October 2004 was dropped altogether. At its monthly meeting on July 3, the Board [of Directors'] Retail Rates Committee, which is made up solely of District residents, recommended that the Board lower the proposed rate increase for this October and not approve an increase for October 2004." So I would strongly suggest that you live up to your written word.
Okay, with that said, this Committee is meeting today to conduct its fifth hearing on the Water and Sewer Authority's management of its Lead Pipe Replacement Program since this problem surfaced just two months ago. To date, we have heard more than 30 hours of public testimony from Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) officials, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Washington Aqueduct and the Department of Health.
We have also heard testimony from former WASA employee Ms. Seema Bhat, the former Water Quality Manager who testified under oath that she alerted WASA and the EPA to the potential for a major problem with lead in the water.
Public health experts such as Dr. Jerome Paulson were brought in to shed light on the effects of ingesting lead into the human body. We listened as District parents and expectant parents expressed outrage at WASA's lackadaisical approach to informing our residents about the lead levels in some of our residents' drinking water. These same parents had taken every precaution to protect their children and unborn children from harm, and then they hear from WASA that their tap water has elevated lead levels months after WASA knew that there was a problem.
It was concerns about WASA's neglectfulness that led us to establish the Interagency Taskforce on Lead in Water, which was formed within a week of the Committee's first emergency hearing in February. The Task Force, which I co-chair with the Mayor, is working to ensure that prompt action is taken by the relevant agencies in this government.
The Task Force has been meeting once a week to share information, to discuss lessons learned and to brainstorm as we work cooperatively to solve the problem. One action taken after one of our first meetings was the issuing of a public health advisory cautioning pregnant women, nursing mothers and parents with children under the age of six to not drink unfiltered water from suspected lead service lines. Thankfully, preliminary results of testing thus far has not linked lead in the water to significant or widespread health problems, but we must still be vigilant in getting folks tested and getting the lead out of the water.
The Task Force had been conducting briefings three days a week to keep the channels of communication open and information flowing to the public, and is now briefing the media once a week, although this schedule will be altered if developments warrant.
The public also implored city leaders to reach short-term solutions to the issue of lead while a plan for long-term resolution was being formulated. Again, answering the cry for action, the Task Force helped initiate the disbursement of water filters to the city's vulnerable population. WASA is now mailing water filters to the homes of people with lead service lines and to those who are a part of the vulnerable population.
And, just yesterday, I called on WASA to make filters available to 20,000 homes where the composition of service lines are uncertain, but where recent tests have indicated elevated levels of lead in the water.
We are continuing to keep the public abreast of the latest developments on this issue, while keeping the responsible agencies' feet to the fire, in an effort to bring about a swift and lasting resolution.
The Committee remains dedicated to the goal of uncovering every key detail in this matter. There are articles being written and accusations being lodged against city officials that illustrate the need for continued hearings on who knew what and when regarding the lead issue, so that everybody can hear on the record from others who are involved in the issue, and so that everyone has an opportunity to speak if they so desire.
Today, we will hear updates from officials of the Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Health (DOH).
Now, before we start with questions, I would like to turn to my colleague(s) for any opening statements that they may have.
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