The District agency responsible for providing clean drinking water throughout the city rigged its monitoring of lead in water by not conducting tests in parts of Washington known for having higher lead levels, the D.C. inspector general has found.
For a 26-month span beginning in July 2001, investigators said, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority -- the predecessor of D.C. Water -- knew that lead levels were elevated in the city's water system. Although that agency notified the Environmental Protection Administration and began trying to remove excessive lead, DCWASA also tried to cover up the extent of the crisis.
"DCWASA sought to minimize the problem by sampling water from residences that were unlikely to have elevated lead levels, avoiding additional testing in areas of the District known to have elevated water lead test results," the inspector general wrote.
|The inspector general's office said three top DCWASA employees declined interviews as a part of the investigation, saying they weren't public employees. Since the probe, D.C. Water spokesman Alan Heymann said, the agency has hired a new general counsel and changed its stance for future investigations. "Our policy is to comply," Heymann said. "If we have information, make it public, put it out there and make sure everybody knows everything they need to know."|
Investigators also found that DCWASA didn't use approved testing methods throughout the city and that officials "provided misleading information" during hearings before the D.C. Council about lead levels.
In one instance, Glenn Gerstell, then the chairman of the agency's board, told legislators that DCWASA tested more samples than required because it wanted to understand the extent of the lead problem.
In reality, the EPA required the agency to test more residences to meet federal guidelines that mandated the city have 1,615 acceptable tests. It took the agency about 6,000 tests to meet that standard.
"Not only did DCWASA officials intentionally mislead EPA, the D.C. Council and the public ... they minimized the scope of the District's elevated lead levels by failing to accurately attribute the number of samples obtained to the failure rate in lead compliance testing," investigators said.
Gerstell declined to comment on the report because he had not had a chance to review it.
Alan Heymann, a spokesman for D.C. Water, said the agency had a leadership overhaul in 2009 and that past problems aren't reflective of the agency's current performance.
"There's an entirely new management team in this place as of more than two years ago. There's an entirely new relationship with the D.C. Council and the rest of the District government," Heymann said. "I wouldn't want anything in a report about something that happened ... years ago to undermine anyone's confidence in the safety of the water today."
Scientists aren't sure whether lead-laden water is to blame for the diagnoses of lead poisoning in some District children.
"Lead experts and health officials cannot determine with certainty whether a correlation exists between lead levels in District tap water and lead-poisoned children," the report said.
Brendan Williams-Kief, a spokesman for at-large Councilman David Catania, who chairs the D.C. Council's health committee, said the report was troubling.
"This report raises some concerns about the reliability of the testing that was brought before the council," he said. "We're exploring ways to improve the water testing regimen."