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Joint Public Hearing on Water Quality in the District of Columbia

Tuesday, February 10, 2009
George S. Hawkins, Esq., Director, DDOE

Joint Public Hearing on Water Quality in the District of Columbia
Director George S. Hawkins, Esq. - February 10, 2009

Good afternoon Chairman Cheh and Chairman Graham, and members of the Committees on Government Operations and the Environment and on Public Works and Transportation. I am George Hawkins, Director of the District Department of the Environment (DDOE). Thank you for the opportunity to present testimony on water quality in the District of Columbia. I am here today to present the Executive’s point of view on this very important matter. Furthermore, on behalf of DDOE, I would like to express our appreciation for your leadership in organizing this series of water quality review hearings, and specifically today’s hearing on the issue of lead in our water.

Allow me to begin my testimony by assuring both Council and the public that when it comes to protecting public health, this Administration takes the firm position that there is no known safe level of lead exposure for children. This is not only a rational position to take given the state of the research and science on the topic, but it is also the official position taken by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one that frames or should frame any discussion about human exposure to lead. With this as my starting point, it’s easy for me to affirm that I take very seriously my commitment to eliminate all occurrences of lead poisoning in the District of Columbia, including those associated with lead in tap water.

I would like to look for a moment at lead as a source of exposure in water from a historical perspective. The recent study by Drs. Edwards and Best, that has deservedly received much local and national attention, finds a correlation between exposure to leaded water and a significant increase in blood lead level among our most vulnerable citizens. However, before proceeding, it is important to remind ourselves that the Best and Edwards study focuses on an extraordinary period, thankfully now past, when lead levels in the District water were unacceptably high.

It is not appropriate at this point to discuss or raise questions about any of the study’s conclusions. Instead, I have asked CDC to analyze the study for us, and they are currently doing so, with active participation by their senior staff. We hope to receive a formal response from the CDC shortly.

While we wait for this analysis, I believe it is important to note that even the Best and Edwards study focuses not on all young children in the District, but rather on a specific smaller subset of young children, namely those who may have ingested water with high lead levels on a routine and regular basis in their infant formula. We also have initial analysis from experts such as Dr. Howard Frumkin, director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC, who is quoted in a recent Washington Post article stating: “At these levels, the effects are subtle. They are detectable in population studies but generally not in individual children.”

Now, any finding that some children may have suffered adverse health effects of any kind from exposure to high levels of lead in some of the District’s tap water is of great concern. We know already that because their intake of water is proportionately greater by body weight than an adult’s, young children are at greater general risk of lead in water than adults. I want to repeat what I stated at the outset: this Administration takes the firm position that there is no known safe level of lead exposure for children. We will keep this in mind as we review the latest study by Best and Edwards of past lead levels and as we proceed with other efforts to analyze current lead levels in our tap water.

It is important that I turn to the present state of our drinking water quality and remind us again, that the Best and Edwards study focuses on a past period, when lead levels in the District water were unacceptably high. In response to the lead crisis, the water chemistry was changed in 2004 to reduce the corrosivity that was causing lead to leach into our water. This change has worked to address the lead problem, and I am aware of no study that alleges otherwise.

At this time, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the water supply in the District of Columbia is in compliance with all federal standards for safety, including the Lead and Copper Rule.

When our friends in the advocacy community raised concerns about the relative effectiveness of the partial pipe replacement initiative, and along with your urging, Councilmember Graham, DC WASA’s Board of Directors responded by discontinuing the proactive partial lead service line replacement program. Today, pipe replacement occurs only when street repairs are underway, or a water main is being replaced.  When a property owner agrees to participate and replace the private side service line, he or she may apply for a grant to defray those costs.  The District’s Department of Housing and Community Development has been offering $5,000 grants to income-qualified property owners, to pay for the cost of lead pipe replacement when lead service lines are found underneath private property. My understanding is that the average cost of such replacement is about $2,500.

Finally, the District’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, which is responsible for following up on cases of lead poisoning as they become known to us, has for more than a year worked closely with advocates, including Parents for Nontoxic Alternatives, Clean Water Action, the Alliance for Healthy Homes, and Dr. Marc Edwards, to develop a viable protocol for water sampling, which has been an official part of the District’s inspection protocol when it investigates the homes of lead poisoned children. I should point out that this makes the District one of only a few jurisdictions in the country that routinely checks whether water could be a contributing source of lead in the homes of children identified with an elevated blood lead level.

I have convened a taskforce that includes all stakeholders, from DC WASA to community-based organizations, and have initiated a transparent process to design a definitive study that will closely examine and carefully analyze the District’s water quality with respect to lead. The taskforce meetings have been honest and open, with varying parties taking strong positions on some of the key issues.

I am encouraged that in the task force meetings to date, despite some strongly held points of view, stakeholders from every side of this issue have been able to find common ground about how best to gather definitive data on the current quality of the District’s water. I’m also confident that once this study is complete, this same group will be able analyze the results, whatever they may be, and determine what, if any, policy, risk communication, and public education changes need to be made in order to ensure that District residents and their families are well protected.

We’ve identified the funding to pay for the study design, and DDOE will also commit to overseeing the testing and analysis components.. We anticipate the testing will be undertaken by an independent contractor with substantial expertise in water monitoring and data analysis. We plan to suggest to CDC that they become active participants in this taskforce. Given the national implications of this study, we also plan to seek funds to support the rest of the work that needs to occur, from the CDC, US EPA and other potential sources.

In conclusion, Chairmen Cheh and Graham, and Committee members, I firmly believe this Administration has not only taken the lead-in-water issue very seriously, but it has taken vital and indeed creative steps to ensure the District’s water is of high quality. DDOE will continue to work to identify ways to further our understanding of drinking water safety and educate the public in this important area. I thank you again for the opportunity to testify and look forward to answering any questions the Committees may have.