March 27, 2004
Washington Fires Health Chief Over Handling of Lead in Water
By BRIAN WINGFIELD
WASHINGTON, DC, March 26 — With
concern growing over unsafe lead levels in the drinking water
here, city officials blamed the federal government this week for
the problem. On Friday, the city fired the head of the Health
Department because, the officials said, he had in part not
adequately responded to the problem.
The mayor's office acknowledged
that it had dismissed James A. Buford, the health director, and
replaced him with an interim director, Herbert R. Tillery, the
deputy mayor for operations.
The District of Columbia Water
and Sewer Authority, the water distributor, says Mr. Buford
failed to respond to a request in December to help inform the
public about the lead.
Mr. Buford's phone number was not
available for seeking comment.
Officials say that 4,000 houses
have shown high levels in tests and that additional thousands
might be affected. The officials said they had traced the source
of the problem to strengthening the chlorine by adding ammonia,
which leads to lead leaching from water pipes.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams and
other municipal officials faulted the Army Corps of Engineers,
which used the ammonia, and the federal Environmental Protection
Agency, which monitors the water system. City officials have
asked the federal government to reimburse it for nearly $26
million spent on replacing pipes, testing and other expenses.
"It would be wholly
inappropriate and unjust for the people of the district to bear
these costs," Mr. Williams, a Democrat, and Carol Schwartz,
the top Republican on the City Council, wrote to President
Bush this week.
At first, the water authority
said the problem was limited to 23,000 houses with aging lead
pipes. Officials say that the number could increase and that
because of poor record keeping they were not sure how many
houses had lead pipes.
In recent week, officials in
counties in Maryland and Virginia have begun testing their
According to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, lead poisoning can cause
learning, behavioral and health problems, including seizures and
possibly death, in young children. Adults face less risk but are
also susceptible to lead contamination.
Mayor Williams's office ordered
the water authority last week to deliver free water filters to
all 23,000 homes known to have lead pipes. The deliveries are
supposed to be completed by April 10.
The Health Department has also
screened the blood of nearly 2,000 people, a spokesman for Mr.
Williams, Tony Bullock, said.
This month, the environmental
agency told the city to adopt new guidelines to respond to the
contamination. The agency has formed a panel to find the cause
of the problem and to release its findings on Wednesday.
"Our primary concern is to
make sure the estimated 23,000 homes and businesses with lead
service lines receive safe drinking water," a spokeswoman
for the agency, Cynthia Bergman, said in a statement. "We
need to identify the cause of the problem before we decide who
pays for what."
Some critics said the federal
government was not being held accountable enough for the
"The origin and the
responsibility for D.C.'s water crisis lies with the federal
government," said Eleanor Holmes Norton, the city's
nonvoting delegate to Congress.
Ms. Norton said the federal
government should declare a state of emergency, so federal money
could be earmarked for the water system.