Today’s hearing will review the detection of lead in D.C. drinking water; specifically on needed improvements in communication and the status of immediate actions and long-term solutions.
Mayor Anthony Williams of the District of Columbia and Councilmember Carol Schwartz were among those who requested that we hold this hearing. I appreciate their efforts and look forward to working with them and others to address the immediate risks of this situation.
Mayor Williams joined me yesterday in a meeting with city residents and Councilmember Schwartz has been very helpful and would have come with us but for a regularly scheduled legislative session.
Councilmember Schwartz has also forwarded to my attention the letter that she and Mayor Williams wrote to the Appropriations Committee last week.
Many members of this committee also advocated for this hearing.
Overview on the Issue
First, let us recognize the obvious: clean water is everyone’s need and everyone’s priority, even though we may take it for granted.
Secondly, we must appreciate that this subject is both complex and emotional. We must proceed accordingly, without coloring facts with hard feelings, and without disregarding hard feelings with factual arguments. There is a lot of work to do: some technical and some digging up of service lines. In order to do these jobs correctly we need clear heads, clear messages, and clear agreements. We need to fix this problem, and we must fix it now.
An important fact already in evidence is that lead is toxic, but historically was used for plumbing and as an ingredient in paint and automobile fuel. Because plumbing, paint chips and dust, and exhaust fumes surround most Americans, lead is very troubling. We have made progress by phasing out leaded gasoline and – more slowly – rehabilitating lead-painted homes. Lead in plumbing represents an enormous part of the nation’s need to replace and rehabilitate its water system.
Health risks of lead are generally widely accepted, and a recent study may add new concerns. Lead poisoning delays physical and mental development in children and, in adults, causes increases in blood pressure and – after long-term exposure – damages kidneys.
Another important fact is that many people were surprised in January of this year when they read in the newspaper that lead levels were high – in some cases very high – in many homes in Washington. The fact that people were surprised means that to communicate effectively from now on we must communicate differently from now on.
In addition to the obvious reason for communicating risks to the public, it is especially important in managing lead. By nature of the problem we will be living with lead in our home environments for a long time; therefore, it requires particular vigilance.
Charge to the First Panel
The members of the first panel are here to explain efforts to repair missed communications with the public, to review lessons learned to date, and explain intended efforts or policy changes for better communicating risks in the future.
Every Senator and staff member knows the challenge of communicating risks because we have been evacuated from our offices – some of us twice – when attacked with anthrax and ricin. Since those episodes we have installed an announcement procedure by which we hear immediately of every suspicious substance found in our buildings. Even though most of these announcements are followed by an “all clear” message, we are prepared for the sight of a safety team wearing protective clothing as they hurry to investigate. People should have the information they need to judge risks for themselves.
In addition to the issue of communication, we also want to hear of the latest developments in finding and eliminating the lead. Also, I am specifically interested in how the public will be included in deliberations and decisions about this problem.
Charge to Second Panel
The second panel is here to describe the health risks of lead, relate personal experiences with this issue, and offer professional advice about how communications could be improved. I appreciate your commitment to join us today. I strongly urge the first panel to remain to hear what the second panel has to say.
The National Need
To all who are following this issue, remember: this situation is a specific and serious example of a national issue. Depending on where you live and work, your water infrastructure is anywhere from 40 to 140 years old. That means many Americans are already experiencing either the problems of an aging system or the limits of a small system. All systems need to work reliably everywhere and for everyone.
To accomplish this will require more money than we currently have. In 2000, the Water Infrastructure Network estimated that current infrastructure needs could cost around $1 trillion over the next 15-20 years. \1\ This is around $20 billion per year more than current spending. The EPA’s own “Gap Analysis” from 2002 estimates almost $300 billion in infrastructure resource shortfalls over 20 years. \2\ I raised this issue on the Senate floor and won unanimous approval to increase available spending authority for water infrastructure – and I am pushing to retain this amendment in the Conference on the Budget Resolution.
Today’s hearing is about Washington’s particular reason for a new effort to upgrade the nation’s water systems. I encourage all cities to heed the warning and answer the call.
\1\ Water Infrastructure Network. April, 2000. Clean and Safe Water for the 21st Century. Link from http://www.win-water.org/; direct from: http://www.amsa-cleanwater.org/advocacy/winreport/winreport2000.pdf
\2\ EPA. 2002. The Clean Water and Drinking Water Infrastructure Gap Analysis. Link: http://www.epa.gov/owm/ (click “Featured Information”); direct: http://www.epa.gov/owm/gapreport.pdf