Thursday, September 10, 2009

Our Vision for a New WASA, with George Hawkins at the Helm

The news is encouraging. WASA has picked Director of the DC Department of the Environment (DDOE) George Hawkins as its new General Manager. Mr. Hawkins has been at DDOE only two years, but has made a name for himself as one of the most respected members of the Fenty administration. He is expected to start his new job in October.

Following the announcement of his selection, Mr. Hawkins told the Washington Post that his focus at WASA will be "all about the quality of the water and the quality of the environment." If that's the case, George Hawkins' WASA will be a welcome change from the WASA created by Jerry Johnson. Under the leadership of Mr. Hawkins, we can hope to see our water utility finally break out of its bunker mentality and into the 21st century. This evolution will necessitate a new, integrated and holistic vision, where drinking water quality, storm water runoff, sewage treatment, and environmental protection are no longer viewed as in competition with one another, but are recognized as interdependent and fundamental, and where thoughtful, innovative infrastructure and environmentally sustainable solutions are used to increase the safety of our tap water and decrease our environmental footprint at the same time.

Mr. Hawkins can certainly lead WASA in this direction.

In his short tenure at DDOE, Mr. Hawkins oversaw a vast restructuring of DC's childhood lead poisoning prevention program: fixing significant problems that made the city's management of lead and lead exposure ineffective in prior years; chairing a task force charged with coordinating and improving the work of multiple District agencies that address lead poisoning; hiring seasoned and progressive senior staff; and supporting smart changes in policies and procedures that are helping shift DC's approach on lead poisoning from reacting to poisoned children one by one toward preventing childhood lead exposure in the first place.

From his two years at DDOE Mr. Hawkins has also acquired rapid fluency in matters of lead at the tap. He served very thoughtfully as an alternate member of WASA's Board of Directors and helped push the agency to be more responsive to the public about numerous environmental concerns, including lead in drinking water. He also chaired the city's Water Quality Task Force, which was created in 2008 to conduct the first ever independent evaluation of DC's drinking water for lead. Although the task force has moved at the pace of a wounded snail, it has at least developed a sound proposal for a study that is comprehensive and avoids WASA's long-standing lead-hiding techniques. That's good news and nothing to take for granted in DC. We only hope that Mr. Hawkins' replacement at DDOE advances this important work with the same clarity of thought and scientific rigor.

Mr. Hawkins' DDOE took another long-overdue step. Five years after the city's unprecedented lead-in-water crisis, which was recently reported to have harmed hundreds if not thousands of infants and toddlers, DDOE finally checks the homes of all children under 6 with elevated blood lead levels (EBLLs) for lead-contaminated drinking water. DDOE can do better on this front with a tighter testing protocol, but it deserves great credit for its work so far.

That said, we might single out one development that disappointed us. In 2008 Mr. Hawkins, representing Mayor Fenty, officially opposed several basic and sensible provisions aimed at addressing lead in drinking water in a supposedly "comprehensive" lead poisoning prevention ordinance, over the strong objections of local and national lead poisoning prevention advocacy organizations. His stated reasons for the Administration's position were weak and, in our opinion, indefensible. However, Mr. Hawkins did support the idea of a separate bill focusing exclusively on lead at the tap. Such a bill is a good idea and direly needed.

In light of his overall record, the selection of Mr. Hawkins as WASA's new General Manager brings us hope that the day will come when WASAwatch is no longer needed. Mr. Hawkins' new appointment also challenges us to envision what a reasonable approach to lead at the tap would look like. WASA has always claimed that safe drinking water is one of its highest priorities. Yet its persistent failure to proactively protect public health, and its propensity to cover up its past misdeeds with misinformation has proved that the agency we depend on for clean and safe drinking water views the public as a nuisance worthy of little more than manipulation and deceit.

If WASA wants to restore consumer trust in its alleged commitment to safe drinking water, we urge it to consider the following actions:

1. Acknowledge the mounting evidence that in 2001-2004 many DC children were harmed by WASA's failure to properly notify the public about excessive levels of lead in our water.

2. Declare lead-contaminated drinking water a public health concern and develop a comprehensive plan to address it properly. In this plan include:
  • The replacement of those individuals across all echelons of WASA who, since 2001, have played an active role in hiding lead-in-water problems and deceiving the public about the associated public health risk. As we have stated before, former General Manager Jerry Johnson was not the only wrongdoer within WASA who helped weave the dangerous fabric of deceit and denial that exposed the public unnecessarily to hazardous levels of lead at the tap. If the other co-conspirators are not dismissed, Mr. Johnson's accomplices will continue to stand in the way of restoring the public's trust in WASA.
  • The restoration of WASA's lead-in-water monitoring program. WASA must make a public commitment to abide by the intent of the federal Lead and Copper Rule (LCR), which requires measuring worst-case lead-in-water levels in high risk homes under customers' normal water use conditions. As Mr. Hawkins knows, the method by which WASA has been checking the city's tap water for lead since 2001 is replete with trickery designed to miss worst-case lead-in-water levels. Until these problems are corrected, WASA's platitudes that our water is safe vis-a-vis lead will remain meaningless.
  • The implementation of a transparency policy that makes all WASA materials, meetings, data, contracts, studies, correspondence, and decision-making pertaining to lead at the tap accessible to the public. This includes fulfilling all outstanding Freedom of Information Act requests and erring on the side of disclosure whenever possible. Such a program must also commit WASA to online posting, in real time, of all information pertaining to the agency's lead-in-water monitoring program, including sampling and analytical protocols, home selection process, sampling instructions to residents, home addresses in the sampling pool, and lead-in-water test results with street numbers redacted only when residents explicitly request this option.
  • The implementation of a health-protective lead service line replacement program. WASA must once and for all make a public commitment to abandon a) the practice of counting a home's lead service line as replaced when tests in that home show lead-in-water levels below 15 parts per billion, and b) the partial replacement of lead service lines because, according to the utility's own data, such replacements can result in lead spikes of an undetermined duration. WASA must contact all 10,000 or so DC residences with partially replaced lead service lines to inform them about the possible long-term health uncertainties involved in such replacements and encourage them -- with clear information and financial incentives -- to replace the remaining portion of their lead pipe or protect themselves from lead spikes.
  • A clear separation of WASA's public health education program from the agency's public relations program. WASA must commit to delivering regular, clear, complete, and accurate information about lead in DC's drinking water to all its customers in residences, nursing homes, educational institutions, health care facilities, nursing homes, public recreational spaces, food service establishments, businesses, and government offices. This commitment should apply both when WASA meets the LCR lead action level of 15 parts per billion in over 90% of homes, and when it does not.

    WASA's outreach must include a description of the overall quality of DC's water vis-a-vis lead based on the agency's monitoring data, and must always explain that compliance with federal standards does not guarantee low lead-in-water levels at every home (see our 2/20/09 blog entry). WASA must emphasize that the LCR requirements do not cover day care centers, schools, food service establishments, offices, or commercial buildings, and must explain to the public that sources of lead in water include not only lead service lines, but also lead solder and leaded brass fixtures (i.e., plumbing components that exist in most DC buildings).

    WASA must routinely remind customers of the steps they can take to prevent exposure to lead at the tap in their specific environments. In its outreach, WASA must emphasize that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises children and pregnant women in homes with over 15 parts per billion of lead at the tap to use bottled water.

    To residents in high-risk homes participating in the agency's water monitoring program, to guardians of children with EBLLs, and to residents in homes with partial lead service line replacements, WASA must offer additional information that explains the meaning (and limitations) of lead-in-water test results.

    For advice on risk communication to the public, WASA should consider hiring a health professional who is nationally renowned for his/her expertise in childhood lead poisoning, has demonstrated knowledge about and research experience in the health effects of lead in drinking water, and has no record whatsoever of downplaying the significance of lead at the tap. As a first step, however, WASA must immediately retract all statements suggesting that lead in water is not a significant public health concern.
  • The facilitation of regular contact between WASA and the public, in order to improve communication and strengthen the city's lead poisoning prevention efforts as they relate to lead at the tap. For example, WASA ought to become a regular participant in all official meetings about lead poisoning elimination and dedicate at least one position on its board of directors for a representative from the city's lead advocacy community. With public health at the top of its agenda, WASA must ensure that its board members become vigorous and proactive overseers of all matters related to lead at the tap, while shedding their traditional role as the agency's largely uninvolved and uninformed apologists.
We are committed to helping Mr. Hawkins in the gigantic, but critically important, task ahead of him.

Yanna Lambrinidou
Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives

Ralph Scott
Alliance for Healthy Homes

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