| IS HIS WATER SAFE'
Washington, Feb. 8: The toast of America’s capital this month is an Indian-American civic official here who had been sacked by the city’s Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) for exposing dangerous levels of lead poisoning in Washington’s drinking water supply.
Seema Bhat lost her job as WASA’s water quality manager in March last year after she reported to the federal government’s Environment Protection Agency (EPA) that the capital’s water supply is unsafe for drinking, cooking or brushing teeth.
A federal investigation found that the firing of Bhat was improper and asked WASA to reinstate her with back pay and damages.
But so angry are the civic authorities here that they are refusing to have the whistle-blower back in service and have gone on appeal.
Frustrated and angry, Bhat’s attorneys last week decided to go public with the sordid case. The result is hell for civic officials who are now at the receiving end of people power in a rare case involving an Indian-American.
Officials and city politicians are being inundated with phone calls from anxious residents unsure about using tap water not only for cooking and drinking, but even for bathing and laundering.
An emergency meeting of Washington’s district council called last week to discuss the issue had to be postponed because its members could not agree on an agenda.
Bhat’s attorney, Bryan Schwartz, has done rounds of the local media explaining that before getting rid of her, WASA officials constantly harassed her for telling the EPA that the capital’s water supply exceeded federal guidelines on lead contamination.
Worse than punishment for a civic-minded official who was doing her moral duty has been revelations that WASA officials attempted to cover up dangerous levels of lead in its potable water.
According to records now revealed on behalf of Bhat, nearly four years ago, WASA officials tested water in 50 houses in the capital and found that at least in seven cases, it had lead content that exceeded the EPA standards.
But instead of submitting that report to EPA, officials here invalidated the results and re-tested the houses. Somehow, the new results showed only four houses exceeding the federal lead limit: therefore WASA was not found to be in violation of the EPA’s 10 per cent ceiling.
In summer last year, WASA tested water in 6,118 homes and found that 4,075 of them had unacceptably high lead levels. But those test results were not mailed to residents until November and some residents, whose water was tested, said they are yet to receive any official communication.
WASA is not commenting to the media on Bhat’s case on the ground that it is under litigation, but its chairman, Glenn Gerstell conceded that “we have not done a good enough job...we will redouble our efforts without being alarmist”.
Lead from drinking water can damage the human brain, nervous system, kidneys and red blood cells, particularly in children and unborn babies.
EPA guidelines require 7 per cent of contaminated lead pipes to be replaced every year, which means the local authorities will have to spend between $10 million to $20 million a year on that effort.