Image by USEPA Environmental-Protection-Agency.

Long before Flint, the District faced an acute lead crisis in the early 2000s. Many here believe lead issues in the District's water have been resolved, but alas, it's a false sense of security.

In 2017, when I was an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner representing the northwestern most corner of Columbia Heights, I saw firsthand how the District’s water utility (DC Water, formerly known as WASA) practices are not just failing to address this problem, but actually exacerbating it.

DC Water came to our ANC meeting and presented about some of its planned infrastructure projects, including water main upgrades and plans to replace the lead pipes that connect those water mains to homes. It sounded good on the surface, but I knew from my day job as an attorney on the health team at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a public health and environmental advocacy organization, that how one replaces lead pipes and whether one replaces the whole pipe matters—and it matters a lot.

As I looked into it with the goal of protecting my constituents, I learned that DC Water was (and is) conducting lead pipe infrastructure projects in a way that could actually increase the levels of lead flowing into a DC home. NRDC joined groups including the Campaign for Lead Free Water, DC Environmental Network, and Earthjustice to call for a stop this practice and clean up District water.

Councilmember Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1) introduced the Lead Water Service Line Replacement and Disclosure Amendment Act to stop this dangerous practice, and Councilmember Mary Cheh (Ward 3) moved it through the Environment and Transportation Committee. The bill became law at the end of last year. Now the DC Council is considering whether to fund the law.

DC Water says it complies with federal standards. So why is lead a problem?

A recent report from the District Office of Inspector General (OIG) confirmed that “there are still measurable amounts of lead in the District’s drinking water” and “lead may exist in customers’ drinking water because of the system’s infrastructure.” The fact that there is lead in the District’s water, and that both our infrastructure and the practices DC Water uses to maintain it are a source of the contamination, is a problem. The OIG found that: “DC Water management did not design its system of controls to identify and remove all sources of lead.”

In response to the report, DC Water touted its compliance with federal standards, but that does not mean there is no lead in the water.

True, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) threshold for when a public water system must take action (called the Action Level) for lead in drinking water is 15 parts-per-billion (ppb), but that level is not designed to be health protective, and in fact, it is not. The EPA has determined that the amount of lead in drinking water at which no adverse health impacts would occur is zero, and that is for good reason.

The science could not be more definitive: There is no safe level of lead exposure. Although very low levels of lead were once considered safe, we now know that even minimal exposure can wreak havoc on developing brains and nervous systems, which can suffer damage that is irreversible.

Children are “both more susceptible to lead poisoning and suffer more severe impacts,” NRDC writes in its report on lead in drinking water. The American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other credible sources agree on this. Exposure to lead can also cause adverse cardiovascular and kidney effects, cognitive dysfunction, and elevated blood pressure in otherwise healthy adults.

The way DC Water is replacing lead pipes is dangerous

A big source of lead in drinking water is the lead pipes throughout the District that connect homes to water mains. These “service lines” run from water mains—the larger pipes that run parallel to the street—to all DC homes. Ever since the lead crisis in the early 2000s, DC Water has been gradually replacing lead pipes throughout the District using ratepayer funds. However, the way that it has been doing it is dangerous.

Rather than replacing the whole pipe, DC Water has decided to replace only the portion that runs through public property, stopping at the property line. It gives homeowners the option to pay out of pocket, on short notice, to replace the portion of the pipe that runs through private property.

Image by Lead Service Line Replacement Collaborative used with permission.

However, many homeowners do not have access to the information to understand why this is important, or lack funds even if they do (replacement can cost thousands of dollars). Landlords have little incentive to invest in something that potential renters may not know about and cannot see.

Problems from replacing only a portion of the lead service line (called “partial lead service line replacement”) go beyond the fact that it leaves some lead pipe in place, which can corrode and release lead particles into water. Construction can disturb large flakes of lead that had settled into the bottom of the pipe, causing acute exposure. A phenomenon called galvanic corrosion, a reaction between the metals, causes the lead pipe to corrode more over time. That corrosion can release more lead into the water that runs to the tap.

DC Water does have a map of service lines that is supposed to show District residents whether their home connects to the water main with a full or partial lead line, but the DC OIG found:

DC Water could not identify the type of pipe material for 79 percent of service lines in the District’s water distribution system. According to DC Water’s records, as of March 30, 2018, the pipe material for 98,969 of 125,574 service lines on customers’ properties were unknown.

The news is not always good even when DC Water can identify the materials. For example, nearly all the houses on my side of my block have partial lead service lines because DC Water did construction on the water main in 2005, and residents could not or did not pay out of pocket to replace the portion of the pipe that runs through private property. My house is one of three for which the materials in the pipes are unknown. Only one house shows a full copper service line (the better option).

Through my time as an ANC Commissioner, I know that like residents throughout the District, people in my neighborhood are concerned about drinking water safety. But they often lack the knowledge of the dangers of even minimal lead exposure, or the money to pay out of pocket. I also observed constituents take false comfort in the EPA action level, even though it is not meant to be health protective.

In order for the water on my block to become safe, there will need to be expensive construction to revisit work that water ratepayers already paid for only 14 years ago.

A bill before the DC Council aims to fix this problem

The Lead Water Service Line Replacement and Disclosure Amendment Act, if funded, would take a giant leap in the right direction. The bill:

  • Prohibits DC Water from conducting partial lead service line replacement in most circumstances.
  • Authorizes funds to replace the portion of lead pipe that runs through private property when DC Water is conducting regular infrastructure upgrades.
  • Creates a payment assistance program for property owners who wish to pay to replace the portion of the line that runs through their property.
  • Requires a residential property owner to provide any tenants or buyers with a lead disclosure form that identifies known or suspected sources of lead in the dwelling, along with other information about the harms posed by lead and steps residents should take to protect themselves.

The DC Council is currently considering the FY20 budget, and what it decides will have a lasting impact on the residents who live near DC Water’s planned infrastructure projects. When DC Water replaces small diameter water mains, it also works on the service lines leading to the homes.

Here is a map of the planned small diameter water main replacements for FY20. Residents who live along these water mains are at the greatest risk if this program is not funded in the coming year.

Image by DC Water.

Two weeks ago, the Committee on Environment and Transportation reported out a budget that included $1 million to get this program started. That amount is roughly what DC Water needs to conduct only full lead service line replacements in conjuncture with its planned infrastructure projects in FY20. This would be a big win, however, it would be insufficient to go back and begin to fix past mistakes. The DC Council will need to fund that in future years.

DC Water has stated that unless the DC Council funds the program, it intends to go on with business as usual and continue to conduct partial lead service line replacements. Although we question the legality of that position, it presents a serious problem for District residents no matter how you slice it. Unless the DC Council funds this program with at least $1 million, there is a problem. Here are the scenarios:

If the DC Council allocates less than $1 million:

  1. DC Water goes ahead with partial lead service line replacements, using ratepayer funds to invest in infrastructure upgrades but stopping short of completing the projects in a smart, safe, durable way that obviates the need for expensive planned future work. Many DC residents are at elevated risk from lead in their water as a result of this action.
  2. DC Water delays planned, necessary infrastructure upgrades. It does not perform partial lead service line replacements, but to avoid that it halts planned projects and old water mains in need of upgrades do not get them. There is a risk to our distribution system, which is potentially expensive for ratepayers.

If the DC Council allocates at least $1 million:

  1. DC Water continues with planned infrastructure upgrades and is able to replace the full service line for as many as 500 homes (about how many they have been averaging each year). Residents in all four quadrants and nearly all eight wards experience an improvement in water quality and a reduced risk from lead exposure. If Council fully funds the program, DC Water would be able to begin to fix past partial replacements, cleaning up the water overall.

Valerie Baron is a Staff Attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council in the Healthy People Thriving Communities Program and a member of the DC Water Stakeholder Alliance. In 2017-2018 she was an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in ANC 1A in Northwest Washington DC. She lives in Columbia Heights with her spouse, young daughter, and rescue dog.