It was a Tuesday like any other: Promptly at 6:30 a.m., Eugene R. Cox Jr. packed a wooden box with tiny vials, powder packets, and sterile plastic bags, and climbed into a government-issue white pickup. An employee of the Army Corps of Engineers, Cox is charged with checking D.C.’s water supply for impurities.
Cox began by taking water samples from underground reservoirs and pumping stations. Then he sallied forth to see what was emanating from spigots in gas stations, schools, firehouses, and restaurants in Northeast D.C., including the Carter Woodson Junior High School at 4101 Minnesota Ave. NE. Cox conducts tests at more than 200 sites on a monthly basis; during these spot checks, he flushes toilets and urinals to get the water moving, then sterilizes each spigot with a small torch. When he’s satisfied that the water is running clearly, he tests the chlorine level and gathers a half-quart for a later fluoride test. Finally, he fills a plastic bag with water and takes it to the Corps’ microbiology lab.
There, the water is tested for “total coliform”—bacteria that feed on organic matter including decayed vegetation and dead animals. A “hit,” or positive result, doesn’t necessarily mean the water is dangerous; some bacteria are harmless. But a hit does suggest that bacteria are at least present.
A hit also prompts a more sophisticated test for fecal coliform, a bacterium that exists in human and animal excrement. In the case of a fecal coliform hit, it’s unlikely that chunks of feces are floating in the water; more likely, the water has been contaminated by minute particles of excrement, and, more dangerous still, by bacteria that feed off of the excrement. Fecal coliform can provoke gastrointestinal distress that resembles stomach flu in healthy adults. But it can kill children, the elderly, people with AIDS, or others with compromised immune systems.
That’s why the result from Cox’s test at Carter Woodson was so alarming. Initial results suggested the presence of “total coliform”; by Friday, Sept. 24, retests verified the presence of fecal coliform in the school’s water.
All summer, there had been indications of a growing problem with the District’s water supply, despite the extra doses of chlorine that are added during warm weather to combat an explosion in the bacteria population. Under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), a city is in violation of the law whenever more than 5 percent of its monthly water samples test positive for total coliform. During September, 7 percent of the District’s water samples had tested positive for total coliform. This—combined with the fecal coliform at the Carter Woodson site—meant that the District had recorded a double violation.
But because of a jurisdictional dispute, the potentially serious health crisis was ignored and, even now, may be seriously compromising the cleanup.
Unlike anywhere else in the country, control of the District’s water supply is split between two jurisdictions: the federal Army Corps of Engineers and the local Department of Public Works (DPW). Though the Corps turned over to DPW the responsibility for piping water into homes and offices at the beginning of home rule 20 years ago, the Corps maintains the system’s dams, reservoirs, and treatment plants, and tests water quality. The Washington metro area is the only place in which the Corps supplies civilians with water.
After the Corps confirmed the fecal coliform hit at Cater Woodson on Friday, it was required by law to immediately notify DPW and federal officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). However, the Corps claims that it was unable to reach DPW or EPA on Friday; Corps officials say that messages were left and not returned. But Clive Davies, an engineer with EPA national headquarters, blames both Corps and District officials for failing to devise an advance policy for dealing with water emergencies. Regardless, the violation went unremarked over the weekend, and Northeast residents continued to drink the potentially unhealthful water from their faucets.
DPW finally learned of the contamination at Carter Woodson on Monday, Sept. 27.
“Part of the problem is: How does the Corps notify the District of a violation? They found out about a violation on Friday, but they couldn’t find anyone in the District to tell. So they blew it off until Monday,” says Davies. “Well, it’s only fecal contaminate. It’s only the excrement of warm-blooded animals in the water supply. Nothing to worry about. Monday is not good enough.”
DPW should have issued a public notice instructing residents within a four-block radius of the school to boil their water or drink bottled water. But no such order came. DPW spokeswoman Linda Grant says that, based on a notification letter from EPA’s Regional III office, D.C. officials believed that they were merely obliged to notify school employees, not neighborhood residents.
Two days later, on Wednesday, EPA issued an emergency order stating that there was an “imminent and substantial endangerment to the health of users of the District’s water supply” and instructed District officials to notify residents to boil their water by canvassing the neighborhood and alerting TV and radio stations. But, according to EPA officials, the District delayed for two more days. Only after EPA threatened to fine the city $5,000 for each day it did not comply did DPW issue a neighborhood boil alert. DPW spokesman Richard Herbert was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that a boil alert would be “unnecessarily alarmist…The EPA is treating us like criminals. We have a healthy, wholesome water supply.”
“Don’t feel too much sympathy for [DPW]. They acted very irresponsibly,” says EPA’s Davies. “They seemed to feel that if they just closed their eyes, there wouldn’t be a problem. They are just lucky the situation wasn’t more serious.”
Alarmed at DPWs’ reticence, EPA requested a years’ worth of the Corps’ tests and learned that the District had scored another total coliform violation in June 1993. Worse, fecal coliform had been identified at the fire station located at 1765 Lanier Place NW. Neither EPA nor DPW—nor area residents—had been informed.
Then, EPA paid a series of visits to the Corps’ Dalecarlia and McMillan treatment plants, where they found dangerous levels of bacteria somehow surviving the waterworks’ filtration systems. The systems’ water is siphoned from the upper Potomac and piped into the Dalecarlia Reservoir where it is doused with alum, which attaches itself to bacteria and other suspended particles and drags them to the bottom. Some water is then pumped uptown to the McMillan holding reservoir and pumping station. At both Dalecarlia and McMillan, the water is further filtered through layers of Anthrafilt (a coal-based filter medium), sand, and gravel, and then decontaminated with lime and chlorine.
EPA discovered that coliform is surviving this purification process. “That water should be as clean as you can get,” says Davies. “There is something wrong and we need to determine what it is.”
EPA investigators still haven’t found “the smoking gun” of contamination, but suspect the plants themselves. Every 96 hours, the filters at McMillan and Dalecarlia are cleaned with water known as “backwash.” At Dalecarlia, this backwash is then run through the entire filtration process and returned to the regular water supply; at McMillan, the same thing happens except that the backwash is not run through the crucial alum stage. Most newer treatment facilities flush backwash rather than recycling it. But Washington’s aging water infrastructure can’t accommodate this technique. Instead, the Corps has begun to add a chemical coagulant at McMillan that binds the impurities and drags them to the bottom of the tank. The Corps is also isolating the contamination problem with a battery of tests in the treatment plants and around the city.
EPA’s investigation also disclosed that DPW has not flushed the District’s waterpipes in some 20 years—i.e., since it took over the water mains. If pipes are not regularly flushed, a layer of organic gook coats the inside of the pipes, providing a petri-dishlike environment for bacteria. When this “biomass” builds up, it reduces the potency of the chlorine added during treatment.
DPW’s Linda Grant acknowledges that the District doesn’t flush, but says that the same is true of all big cities—specifically New York and Los Angeles. Experts disagree. “New York has a flushing program,” says Davies. And, while water-starved Los Angeles is reluctant to waste water by flushing, Davies ventures that “if Los Angeles had a coliform problem, they would act.”
“Every utility should have some systematic program for flushing. The more the better,” says Jerome B. Gilbert, former manager of the water treatment system in San Francisco’s East Bay area. Gilbert found it difficult to believe that a city would not flush its pipes in 20 years.
DPW protests that it is not legally mandated to flush its pipes. But Carolyn Smuzal, EPA Region III spokeswoman, retorts that “anyone in the business knows it’s a part of the best management tactics. It should be a part of your routine, like brushing your teeth every morning.”
When Arlington, another recipient of Corps water, detected a total coliform violation in August, it took the Corps’ advice and instituted a flushing program. Since then, Arlington has had no coliform hits. Corps water-client Falls Church—which has always maintained a regular flushing program—has been coliform-free for seven months.
“Falls Church is a good example,” says Davies. “They’ve been able to keep their system clean. It’s the same water that goes to D.C., but I’d feel a whole lot safer drinking it in Falls Church.”
So who is muddying the waters?
“The Corps is responsible, the District is responsible,” says Davies. “The Corps has a problem in the plant and the District could have prevented it by flushing the system. They both had an opportunity to prevent this. If either tries to imply that they are not at fault, they are not telling the truth.”
But let us not forget EPA itself. According to a recent study, local EPA officials often go easy on cities that fail to enforce the drinking water laws. The study, conducted by Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, suggests that in 60 percent of violations, the public is never notified. Municipalities and utilities don’t want the embarrassment, and local EPA officers are hesitant to crack down.
“Part of the problem is lack of political will,” says Olson. “Certainly there is a resource problem, but frankly, there is also a fundamental problem with the state and local regional offices believing that they should always maintain a collegial relationship with the water utilities. So it’s “gee Bill, you’ve violated the coliform level again, try and do better next time,’ instead of “gee, Bill, here are your fines and we’re going to take you to court.’ ”
Tellingly, national EPA officials took over the fecal coliform investigation in the District, leaving its Region III authorities to handle the press and paperwork.
Water quality has improved somewhat. According to the Corps, water at Dalecarlia and McMillan has been coliform-free since Oct. 17. In response to EPA’s September emergency order, the District sent out eight crews to systematically flush the pipes. D.C. has also been ordered to start an annual flushing program.
The emergency orders remain in effect, says Smuzal, and will not be lifted until the EPA is satisfied that the problem is solved.
Which may be a while. Typically, fecal coliform contaminations like the one at Carter Woodson result from seepage between sewage drains and fresh water pipes. EPA ordered DPW to check for such seepage, but none has been found. Meanwhile, there was a total coliform hit at Union Station in October, and at least one positive result for fecal contaminants was discovered in a private home after the owners complained about their water. In two other instances, samples for total coliform tested positive, though retests were negative.
Just last Friday, there was another total coliform hit near the Carter Woodson School, although a retest proved negative. Bacteria are mobile by nature, so inspectors cannot be sure if the tests were faulty—or if the bacteria are lurking somewhere else. At any rate, says Davies, that’s simply too many hits for a city that’s undergone such close recent scrutiny.
“I am worrying a bit,” says Davies. “Things should be clean by now, but it looks as though they may get hot again.”