Credit: Darrow Montgomery Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Gas leaks, mold, and lead poisoning were among the most pressing concerns during yesterday’s oversight hearing in the Committee on Transportation and the Environment. The committee, chaired by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, brought several questions to the Department of Energy and Environment, one of three agencies under the microscope.

Gas Leaks Issues

Gas leaks are a big problem in the District. Ward 4 accounted for the greatest number of leaks identified in a DOEE-commissioned methane emission study released by the Office of the Attorney General Nov. 30. The Capitol Hill neighborhood had among the highest number of gas leaks based on the study, which DOEE Director Tommy Wells attributed to aging infrastructure. Old and aging gas systems have long been known to be dangerous.

It’s a fast-growing problem. The study found 3,346 surface gas leaks in 713 miles across District neighborhoods from April to June 2021—a per-mile increase when compared to the last such survey in 2014, Mark Rodeffer of Sierra Club D.C. pointed out. 

Rodeffer called for the city to use this data to identify priority buildings and neighborhoods to decommission fracked gas pipes and transition to green energy. He also implored the District to stop investing in the fossil fuel industry via certain chemicals found in air conditioners and refrigerators. Apart from contributing to almost a quarter of D.C.’s greenhouse gas emissions, fracked gas has been linked to public health concerns like asthma, heart disease, and cancer, Rodeffer said. For the city to transition to refrigerant chemicals with lower toxicity, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs would need to change building codes to allow them; Rodeffer urged the DOEE to press the DCRA for these updates.

Mold Problems

DOEE currently has one person conducting mold inspections of homes throughout the entire District. DOEE would ideally hire more inspectors, particularly when rolling out violation fines, according to Wells. The fines schedule should be published sometime later this year, he said. 

Under the Residential Housing Environmental Safety Amendment Act of 2020, when funded, D.C.-area housing inspectors from the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs will also receive training to spot mold.

“This is important because many residents cannot afford the costs of a private inspection or to litigate to force their landlords to conduct an inspection,” said Kathy Zeisel, an attorney with the Children’s Law Center, who helps low-income D.C. tenants with housing claims. 

Wells cited 420 environmental housing violations in 2020 and 103 so far this year. All claims have been resolved, he said. But when At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson pressed Wells to explain what exactly “resolved” means, the picture isn’t so pretty.

“The term of ‘resolved,’ it’s gonna be different for all of them,” Wells said. “But we’re investigating all of them.”

The city has no jurisdiction over student dorms, he noted. Howard University held its longest running student protest this fall over mold and other issues in its student housing. Students at The George Washington University also reported cases of mold in their dorms this year, some relocating or evacuating campus because of “environmental concerns.” 

DOEE has had a hand in making D.C. mold remediation possible, closing loopholes that otherwise allow landlords to “skirt the intent of the law” and paint over any mold, Zeisel explained. But the new Department of Buildings, one of two agencies that will be created when DCRA is split up, should also support residents by ensuring mold is part of the housing code and enforce any issues as violations, she added.

Lead Poisoning

Lead is another tricky environmental concern. Zeisel called for inspectors to also be trained in lead inspection. While the federal infrastructure bill and the American Rescue Plan have funds allocated to completely remove lead pipes by 2030, the city says the funds fall short of what’s needed. Plus, as Zeisel pointed out, D.C. is at risk of losing federal grant funding, including the lead remediation grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development
Zeisel demanded that the committee ensure that DOEE prioritize residents most at risk of lead poisoning. She urged the Council to reintroduce and pass a 2019 bill to further protect residents from lead contamination. The bill is designed to ensure more careful and frequent housing inspections and greater enforcement of landlord compliance with lead regulations.

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