The departure of General Manager Jerry Johnson from WASA may very well mark a new chapter in our water utility's history. We hope that in this chapter, WASA will turn a new leaf, leaving behind forever a culture of deception, secrecy, and disregard for public health, and replacing it with a commitment to honesty, transparency, and constructive steps forward that will elevate the safety of DC's drinking water to the top of the agency's agenda.
In the last five years, many community, lead advocacy and environmental organizations, including ours, called for Mr. Johnson's resignation on several occasions. We did so because we found Mr. Johnson's handling of the 2001-2004 lead-in-water crisis and his response to subsequent concerns about the safety of our water persistently irresponsible, deceitful, and divorced from disturbing and irrefutable facts. We did so because the water utility Mr. Johnson led consistently circled its wagons in public relations defensive crouch, instead of reaching its hand out to make common cause with the people of the District and address the pressing public health crisis that was gripping our city. Needed candor and leadership was replaced by fixing the facts to desired outcomes and finger pointing when things got too hot in the kitchen.
Having said this, however, it is necessary to put today's encouraging development into perspective. Obviously, an agency's decision to let go of its head is difficult, both for the agency and the individual employee who is let go. Moreover, Mr. Johnson's departure does not, in and of itself, make our water safe again, nor does it answer our questions about the levels of lead currently flowing out of our taps. Although a central figure in this seven-and-a-half year fiasco, Mr. Johnson is only one thread in the intricate fabric of bureaucrats, politicians, agencies, and news organizations that allowed the 2001-2004 cover up of the unprecedented lead-in-water contamination, and continues to perpetuate the preposterous falsity that no measurable harm was done to infants and young children in our city.
Sadly, as reported in earlier entries of this blog, the falsities to which we have been subjected have led many in DC and around the globe to believe that hundreds, and even thousands, of parts per billion of lead flowing from DC's taps had no discernible negative health effects. Mr. Johnson's departure ought to be just the first step toward unraveling this dangerous fabric of deceit and denial. We await the results of the DC Office of the Inspector General's investigation into WASA, because we know that Mr. Johnson was not the only wrongdoer within his agency.
The Environmental Protection Agency -- both EPA Region III (DC's de facto state oversight agency) and EPA Headquarters, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the DC Department of Health, and WASA's consultants at the George Washington University School of Public Health must also be held accountable for the role they have played in enabling (and even supporting) WASA to misrepresent facts about the safety of our water and mislead ordinary people, here in DC, nationally, and internationally, about the health effects of hazardous levels of lead at the tap.
Today we call on all local and federal authorities with oversight on DC's drinking water to strengthen their work on correcting the wrongs and putting things right. We are proud of our efforts and the support of the people of DC who came out to meetings, wrote letters, testified, organized, marched in the street in front of City Hall and the US EPA, and who refused to be cowed by the official line that everything was okay and that it was time to go to sleep. We stayed vigilant and now have a taste of accountability with the firing of Mr. Johnson, but we must remember to keep our eye on the prize -- we must solve the lead-at-the-tap problem that is still ongoing in our community and make sure that this tragedy, or one like it, is never allowed to happen again.
As the late and great DC environmental justice activist Damu Smith reminded us over and over again, "We have to get out of the back of the bus, get up front, and drive it."
This ride is not over.
Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives
National Policy Coordinator
Clean Water Action