Investigating Washington, D.C.’s Water Quality
With lead levels endangering health, public agencies kept test results from consumers.
In January, a shivering group of environmentalists, health advocates and Washington, D.C. residents rallied in chilly weather outside the district’s ornate city hall building to demonstrate their discontent with a persistent problem—high lead levels in the drinking water at thousands of homes in the nation’s capital. The rally was timed to the year anniversary of a front-page Washington Post story that gave many D.C. residents their first news about the contamination. City and federal officials had known about the high lead levels for at least two years before that.
The Post has run more than 200 stories on the lead issue, both locally and nationally, since then. The paper explored the city’s problem in detail, unearthing reports and e-mails from years earlier that warned officials that they were not doing enough to prevent lead contamination. Reporters then aimed the spotlight at the national law governing water testing, exposing weaknesses that prompted federal officials to close some loopholes and some members of Congress to propose rewriting the law.
At the heart of this story are complicated federal regulations on drinking water testing and a growing scientific consensus that lead has toxic impacts even at levels once considered relatively safe. Federal regulation of lead in drinking water is mainly done through the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Lead and Copper Rule, which assumes there is no safe level of exposure but sets an “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb). Utilities must do regular drinking water tests, focusing on older homes at the highest risk, and send the results to the government agency that regulates them. If 10 percent exceed the action level, the utilities must notify the public and replace a certain percentage of lead pipes that are the main source of contamination. Separately, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sets a level of 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in blood as requiring treatment or other intervention.
Lead is most toxic to developing fetuses, babies and young children because it disrupts their physical and mental development. The effects can include a lowered I.Q., impaired hearing, hypertension, kidney disease, and behavior problems. A fetus can be exposed to lead because lead stored in a woman’s bones can be released during pregnancy. Infants can absorb it via breast milk or in formula prepared with lead-contaminated water. Adults also can get kidney problems or high blood pressure from drinking water with high lead levels.
Lead paint is still the biggest source of contamination in this country. But EPA estimated in the early 1990’s that drinking water could account for a fifth of lead intake and perhaps far more in infants who drink formula made with lead-contaminated water. Water becomes contaminated as it travels through corroding lead pipes that still exist in many homes built before the late 1980’s, when use of lead plumbing, fixtures and solder was banned. It also can leach from some newer brass fixtures that, despite being labeled lead-free, contain a small amount of lead. Older water coolers in schools or other institutions also can leach lead.
There was a flurry of lead abatement activity across the country after the EPA adopted the Lead and Copper Rule in 1991, which required regular testing. Many schools replaced their water coolers, and dozens of utilities began adding corrosion-control chemicals to their water to curb the leaching of lead from pipes. But the issue died down in recent years. EPA has allowed some utilities to ignore requirements to reduce lead, according to Post reporting, and the agency dropped drinking water from its list of top regulatory priorities.
Top officials of Washington’s water utility had been aware of lead problems since at least 2002, when the city tested 53 homes and found that drinking water contamination in more than half of them exceeded a federal trigger level. According to a former utility official turned whistleblower, some knew about it a year before that; she said they agreed to let her manipulate test results to hide the problem, but her superiors, who fired her, deny that.
The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority’s (WASA) annual water quality reports repeatedly assured customers the water was safe. When they were required to send a brochure to city residents about the lead problem, they used vague words. After the Post began looking closely, the EPA accused the utility of failing to employ required warning language, such as “unhealthy.” The EPA directly regulates WASA, meaning that EPA officials in the Philadelphia regional office saw the brochure before it went out. “Where were you, EPA?” one D.C. Council member shot back.
Investigating the Problem
In 2003, the utility tested drinking water in 6,118 city homes, and this time the results were even worse: Two-thirds had lead levels high enough to trigger public disclosure and lead-pipe removal. In 157 homes, the water tested above 300 ppb, or 20 times the action level.
One of those homeowners contacted Post reporter David Nakamura after receiving a letter from the utility with his test results. He was alarmed, and he did not think utility officials were very helpful when he asked for advice. (The letter with his test results arrived several months after utility officials had the results in hand. Many other homeowners did not learn their test results until the Post reported them.)
After the first story broke, the Post’s metro editors quickly assembled a core team of reporters. There was so much for reporters to investigate—not just the utility and city government (Nakamura), but also EPA’s role (Carol Leonnig and Jo Becker), health issues (Avram Goldstein), and the water treatment plants (myself). Database editor Sarah Cohen assembled a look-up table on our Web site that included thousands of city lead-test results that the utility refused to give us but which a local civic activist obtained and leaked to us. Several editors participated, with day-to-day oversight by Marcia Slacum Greene.
It was a complex and fast-moving story with the usual team meetings, late nights, and helpful anonymous tipsters that go with it. We assembled a shared electronic database of phone numbers, contacts and documents. We also acquired thousands of pages of e-mails, memos and reports using Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. We experienced firsthand the government’s increasing balkiness at releasing material: In some cases we had to write follow- up letters stating exactly why we needed the materials so quickly. We did not always win our case even though thousands of city residents considered this a public health emergency.
Among the obstacles we faced was the insistence by D.C. water utility officials that they could not give us lead test results because that would violate homeowners’ privacy. Several government agencies failed to provide relevant documents we asked for under FOIA requests, and we had to obtain them through other means. Those documents helped enrich our knowledge of the extent to which officials had known about the problem and failed to act.
What we found was that numerous people or agencies could have told the public about this problem or acted more quickly to fix it. Both the D.C. water utility (then part of the Department of Public Works) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected a consultant’s recommendation in the mid-1990’s to add phosphate to the water, as other cities were doing, to prevent lead leaching from pipes. Cost concerns were one factor. EPA regulators, who were more worried at the time about high bacteria levels in the drinking water than a potential lead problem, went along. EPA again ratified that decision not to use chemicals in 2002, just as the lead problem was surfacing.
In November 2002, an EPA staff member wrote his supervisors that “fast action” might be needed to address the looming lead issue in D.C. We obtained memos that indicated some D.C. city health officials knew there was a problem that year but did not act—even as other city health staff were asking the water utility for help in dealing with families with high lead levels in their blood.
The Stories’ Impact
The Post’s revelations of the city’s lead problems had enormous impact. The D.C. water utility distributed more than 30,000 free water filters and issued a public health advisory urging pregnant women, nursing mothers, and children under six not to drink unfiltered water. City residents were offered free blood tests. The utility hired a team of experts to give advice on health issues. The city administrator fired the health director in part over the poor handling of the lead situation.
Water fountains and sinks were tested in schools throughout D.C. and its suburbs, and some were turned off because of high lead levels. The D.C. water utility has promised to spend $300 million to replace all 23,000 lead service lines on public property by 2010, though many homeowners are unhappy that they must pay for the portion on their property. Several proposals for local regulatory reform have been floated, including having the city assume regulation of its own water supply. The water treatment plants also began adding a type of phosphate, the same chemical that officials rejected using back in the 1990’s, in hopes it will stop lead leaching.
The D.C. Council, the city’s inspector general, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (formerly General Accounting Office), and the EPA all launched investigations of the problem or audits of government response to it. Last year, the D.C. Council held 11 oversight hearings, and Congress held four. Some Democrats in Congress have called for toughening the law regulating lead in drinking water and closing loopholes that allowed the D.C. utility, and others, to downplay problems. EPA officials issued revised instructions to utilities on complying with the law after the Post published a series of stories, but their early official comments suggest they do not intend to propose a major rewriting of the law itself.
The D.C. lead crisis stemmed in part from the city’s unusual form of governance. Its water system is regulated directly by EPA’s regional office in Philadelphia. (In all states except Wyoming, a state agency performs that function.) The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers runs its water treatment plants. WASA, a semi-independent public agency, owns the pipes that deliver it. The city’s health department does blood testing that assesses the impact of lead exposure. This makes for what critics call weak oversight, fuzzy lines of responsibility, and difficulty assigning blame.
But this problem could have happened anywhere and has, in communities large and small. Records obtained by the Post found that utilities in Philadelphia and Boston threw out tests with high readings or avoided testing homes likely to have high drinking-water lead levels. The Post also reported that New York City withheld test results from regulators that would have raised lead levels above the action limit. That disclosure prompted a state crackdown on New York City and a criminal investigation by the U.S. attorney. Regulators have acted in other cities as well.
And even without counting those that concealed true lead levels, the Post identified 274 utilities, serving a total of 11.5 million people, which have reported lead levels over the action limit since 2000.
D’Vera Cohn, a 1984 Nieman Fellow, is a reporter on the metro staff of The Washington Post. The Post’s water series won the 2005 Selden Ring Award for investigative reporting.