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DC Water: 20,082 Lead Water Pipes Still in Public and Private Use

More than a decade after a water-contamination crisis that exposed thousands of Washingtonians to toxic levels of lead, there remain at least 20,082 “identified” lead pipes on public and private property in the nation’s capital, according to information released Thursday by the District of Columbia water authority.

DC Water told InsideSources some of those pipes identified as lead may actually be reclassified once they are physically inspected. But the 20,082 figure — 12,302 lead pipes in public space plus 7,780 in private space — is still more likely to go up than down because 1) homeowners don’t have to report lead lines to the water authority and 2) there are an additional 16,276 public property lines in the water authority’s records identified as “unknown.”

Despite the confirmation that the city still has thousands of lead pipes, water officials were quick to note that tap water in the system has for years met all federal Lead and Copper Rule safety standards set and monitored by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The quality of drinking water in the nation’s capital is under intense scrutiny again this week after Washington’s lead-contamination crisis of 2000-2004 came up during Capitol Hill hearings on Flint, Michigan, where more than 100,000 residents were exposed to lead-contaminated water after the insolvent city switched suppliers to save money in 2014.

Marc Edwards, an environmental engineering professor credited with sounding the alarm on toxic water in both Washington and Flint, testified Tuesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that the long-term health impact of lead-tainted water in the nation’s capital will be “20 to 30 times worse” than what’s happened in Flint.

That assessment, the Virginia Tech professor said, is based on lead contamination levels in the District’s 2000-2004 crisis three times higher than the levels seen in Flint, with 6.5 times as many people in Washington exposed for twice as long. Edwards is one of the authors of a 2009 study that calculated as many as 42,000 District children were exposed to the contaminated water during the worst years of the crisis and are at risk of future health and behavioral problems linked to lead.

After Edwards told InsideSources this week that he has lingering concerns about the thousands of lead pipes that remain in the District’s water system, InsideSources’ Publisher Shawn McCoy set off a Twitterstorm of criticism on Thursday — mostly from media types — by teasing an upcoming story with: “DC RESIDENTS: Do not drink your tap water. Story breaking soon.”

DC Water spokesman John Lisle called the tweet “highly irresponsible.” But McCoy said the water authority’s record of deception during the 2000-2004 crisis (the EPA ruled in 2004 the water authority knew about dangerously high lead readings as early as 2001, but withheld the information) doesn’t inspire much confidence. Especially after Edwards, the Flint whistleblower, told InsideSources DC Water had been slow to respond to his latest batch of Freedom of Information Act requests.

“I read the story, and I have no intention of drinking D.C. tap water again,” McCoy told The Washington Post in an email.

In his email to InsideSources on Thursday, Lisle said the water authority is “very upfront about the dangers of lead in drinking water, which we consider to be a serious health risk.”

DC Water General Manager George Hawkins, who was hired in 2009, provided his own update on the water authority’s lead remediation efforts last week in a letter to Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District’s delegate in the House of Representatives.

Lead levels in Washington water have declined since 2004 due to the addition to the water supply of orthophosphate, a “food-grade” anti-corrosion chemical, Hawkins wrote.

“In the District, drinking water is essentially lead-free when it leaves the Washington Aqueduct’s treatment plants,” Hawkins wrote. But lead “can still enter drinking water that travels through a lead service pipe, lead solder or household plumbing containing lead.”

Hawkins notes in his letter that while the anti-corrosion treatment “has proven effective at reducing the presence of lead in water, the complete removal of all lead sources remains the fail-safe method to prevent lead poisoning.”

In 2004, at the height of the D.C. crisis, the water authority — then known as the Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) — announced a $300 million plan to replace all public lead lines — then estimated at 23,000 — by 2010.

According to the information DC Water released Thursday, six years after that deadline passed, there are still more than 12,000 lead pipes carrying water on public property.

The renewed interest in the District’s water problems comes as lawmakers threaten to turn the crisis in Michigan into a partisan political fight, with Democrats calling for the resignation of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, and Republicans insisting President Barack Obama’s EPA chief Gina McCarthy needs to be fired.

But the country’s problems with lead-tainted water systems extend far beyond Flint.

USA Today, citing an analysis of EPA data, reported on Thursday that “about 350 schools and day-care centers failed lead tests a total of about 470 times from 2012 through 2015.”

According to the paper, “That represents nearly 20% of the water systems nationally testing above the agency’s ‘action level’ of 15 parts per billion.”

Flint Whistleblower: Health Impact of DC Water 20-30 Times Worse than Flint

The Virginia Tech professor credited with sounding the alarm about poisoned water in Flint says the District of Columbia’s own long-running problems with lead exposure dwarf the crisis in Michigan.

One day after appearing before Congress to blast federal officials for their handling of the Flint crisis, Marc Edwards told InsideSources that District of Columbia residents were exposed to higher levels of lead-tainted drinking water for a longer period of time than the Flint residents he and his team have been helping over the past year.

Asked Wednesday to compare the health emergency in Michigan and a similar, years-long crisis that unfolded in Washington beginning in 2000, Edwards said by email the long-term health impact of lead-tainted water in the nation’s capital will be “20-30 times worse” than what’s happened in Flint.

Contamination levels in D.C. peaked in 2004 at three times the levels seen in Flint, with 6.5 times as many people exposed for twice as long as in Michigan, Edwards told InsideSources, calling the Washington crisis — and the way it was handled by local and federal officials — “a nightmare.”

Edwards, a civil and environmental engineer, has been involved in water-quality issues throughout his career and before Flint was best known for bringing attention to lead contamination in the District after he began finding unusually high lead levels in area homes beginning in 2003.

He was one of the authors of a 2009 study that calculated as many as 42,000 District children were exposed to the contaminated water during the worst years of the crisis, 2000 to 2004, and are at risk of future health and behavioral problems linked to lead.

Edward’s 2009 study contradicted public assurances issued by federal and D.C. health officials who acknowledged record levels of lead in city water but downplayed impacts on public health. A congressional investigation a year later confirmed, as Edwards had already predicted, that remediation efforts then underway by the District of Columbia’s Water and Sewer Authority (WASA, now known as DC Water) could make lead contamination worse in some homes.

Edwards told InsideSources he has lingering concerns about the estimated thousands of lead pipes that remain in the District’s water system.

DC Water officials, asked to comment for this story, requested more time to provide a detailed response to Edwards’ remarks. But in a standing feature on the water authority’s website, General Manager George Hawkins defends the quality of the District’s water supply in a letter to consumers: “Testing has shown our water to comply with federal lead standards since 2005, and the results have even improved over time. This is good news, and we believe it is the result of changes in water treatment that reduce the release of lead from pipes and other sources.”

Elsewhere on the site, the authority has an anti-bottled water page, complete with an animated YouTube video, that encourages consumers to drink DC Water’s “safe, affordable, high-quality” tap water instead.

Another page features tips on reducing exposure to lead, including using only filtered water for drinking and cooking water, letting the cold tap run for two minutes for any water intended for consumption and regularly checking and changing aerators in faucet heads for sediment.

Appearing Tuesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Edwards ripped the Environmental Protection Agency, testifying that the EPA’s handling of the Washington lead crisis created the conditions for Flint.

“EPA and other agencies caused a similar lead-and-water crisis in Washington, D.C., from 2001 to 2004 … they completely covered that up for six years, and wrote falsified scientific reports. And it created a climate in which anything goes across the United States, anything at all to cover up health harm from lead in drinking water.”

“I was not surprised when Flint occurred, I was expecting a Flint to occur,” Edwards told Republicans and Democrats on the committee.

The Oversight hearing comes amid lawsuits, several investigations and a huge public outcry over revelations that the more than 100,000 residents of Flint — including between 6,000 and 12,000 children — were exposed to lead-contaminated drinking water after the city switched its water supply to save money in 2014.

In January, President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in the city and two weeks later the EPA official in charge of the region, EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, stepped down under heavy criticism.

Michigan officials, including Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who appointed the financial manager to oversee the insolvent city, have also come under fire.

Both Democratic presidential candidates have called for the governor, who is set to testify Thursday before the Oversight Committee, to resign over the state’s handling of the disaster.