District, EPA Sign Water Pact: City Could Face Fines; Rates Will Rise

Article excerpt

The Environmental Protection Agency and the District cemented a strict, no-nonsense deal yesterday that forces the city to improve the quality of its drinking water - or face heavy, daily fines.

The "consent decree and administrative order" signed by D.C. officials will also cost water customers more money.

The legal agreement tightens federal controls on the District's tap-water operation and imposes penalties from $5,000 to $25,000 per day on the District if it does not adhere to federal standards. But it also gives D.C. officials federal technical assistance to upgrade what everyone freely admits is an aging, antiquated system.

The system's 1 million city and Northern Virginia suburban customers should brace themselves for a rate increase - the city's first since 1987, Mayor Marion Barry said - to help pay for the several-hundred-million-dollar revamping of a century-old system and pipes.

Meanwhile, city and other officials publicly called for the federal government to shoulder a greater part of the financial burden that will fall on the city when the water-improvement project begins in earnest.

"This problem didn't start yesterday," Mr. Barry said during a press conference that preceded the signing. ". . . [but] we're going to find ways to reinforce and regulate our water. To all the people who live here - you don't have a problem. . . .

"I'm anxious to sign the order. I also want the media to help us allay the fears of the residents."

One of the problems, Mr. Barry said, is that water has become a political issue.

Rep. James T. Walsh, New York Republican and chairman of the D.C. subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, agreed. For years, he said, the District has ignored its infrastructure because it's not politically popular to fund public-works projects.

"There's an old saying that `there's no votes in sewers' because people can't see them," Mr. Walsh said. "But this needs to be addressed because the water here is worse than a Third World country."

Despite a bitter taste in the mouth of Mr. Barry and other D.C. officials left by a leaked internal memo sharply critical of the District's inability to curb its water woes, everyone at the ceremony was upbeat. …