TESTIMONY OF W. MICHAEL McCABE
W. MICHAEL McCABE
U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY, REGION 3
SUBCOMMITTEE ON THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
COMMITTEE ON GOVERNMENT REFORM AND OVERSIGHT
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
November 12, 1997
Thank you Mr. Chairman, Congresswoman Norton and Members of the Subcommittee. I appreciate having the opportunity to address the issue of the District of Columbia's Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) with you again today.
My name is W. Michael McCabe, and I am the Regional Administrator for the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Region 3.
Let me begin with a clear and unequivocal statement:
There have been NO violations of drinking water standards and no significant violations of the waste water permit since the Water and Sewer Authority officially opened its doors on October 1, 1996.
Let me repeat -- There have been no violations of drinking water standards and no significant violations of the waste water permit since the new Authority took control a year ago. That fact alone stands in stark contrast to the troubled history of drinking water and waste water operations in Washington, dating back for more than a decade.
Last year I had the privilege of appearing before this Subcommittee on two occasions -- on February 23 and again on June 12. As you will recall, I expressed serious concerns at those hearings, saying that, "the drinking water and waste water systems in [Washington] are in serious trouble." I went into considerable detail, enumerating numerous violations of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act that raised real questions about potential threats to human health and the local environment, including the Potomac and Anacostia rivers as well as the Chesapeake Bay.
While I still have concerns about the long-term health of the drinking water and waste water operations, which I will detail later in my testimony, I am pleased to offer a much more positive assessment of those operations today.
There are several reasons for optimism. The Environmental Protection Agency has taken a very active, some might even say aggressive, role in addressing the problems that have plagued these operations in recent years. We have taken a series of legal actions, requiring major changes in the way the City conducts its drinking and waste water operations. We put together a highly skilled team of national experts, with able assistance from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Washington Aqueduct Division, to work specifically on the drinking water crisis of the summer of 1996. At that time, members of my staff took samples of the District's drinking water every day and analyzed them at our laboratory in Annapolis. We ran a consumer hotline, updated daily in both English and Spanish, to provide District residents with timely, accurate information that they could trust about the quality of the drinking water coming out of City taps.
The Congress, too, deserves credit for taking important steps to address these issues. This Subcommittee helped bring the problems into clear focus during the course of the hearings you held last year. Legislation you authored, Mr. Chairman, was essential in giving the newly-established Water and Sewer Authority the ability to go to the bond market to raise the capital funds it will need for long-term viability. The behind-the-scenes efforts both the Chairman and Ms. Norton undertook to craft an independent authority that could garner the political support of both the District of Columbia and the suburban user jurisdictions was critically important, although little recognized. In addition, the 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments established a special grants program for the District that resulted in the critical infusion of $12.6 million last year. Another estimated $7.1 million will be available in FY98 for capital investments. The Congress also provided a special $1 million appropriation in FY97 for an overdue program to flush the City's drinking water distribution system. Finally, just last month the Congress approved a measure, authored by Ms. Norton, that will temporarily lower the local match requirements for waste water construction grants for the Water and Sewer Authority, thus enabling them to begin work immediately on 19 major projects at Blue Plains for a total cost of about $97 million.
While the EPA and the Congress both deserve credit for the significant improvements that have occurred during the last year, a great deal of the credit belongs to the Water and Sewer Authority itself. In its first year of existence, the WASA Board of Directors has worked well: in selecting a top-notch management team, in developing more detailed and intelligent long-term financial plans, and in making politically difficult decisions ranging from setting rates to establishing priorities. The Authority's operational leadership team now consists of a new General Manager, a new Chief Financial Officer, and a new Chief Engineer. These three have provided a refreshing degree of professionalism and, along with other staffing changes, have had a significant positive impact. Perhaps most importantly, the Authority has done a good job of rolling up its sleeves and getting to work on an enormous backlog of neglected maintenance and past failures to properly invest in its infrastructure.
In one important instance, in fact, WASA has reestablished Blue Plains as an innovative world leader in environmental protection. For a year now WASA has been operating a pilot Biological Nutrient Removal, or BNR, program at Blue Plains. The BNR project is designed to limit harmful excess nitrogen from being discharged into the Chesapeake Bay, and it is working significantly better than we had hoped. Treating just half the flow through the plant, the BNR pilot is designed to remove 3 million of the 13 million pounds of excess nitrogen discharged into the Potomac on an annual basis. But the project is about 50% more effective than we thought it would be. Because of these excellent results, we are already having serious discussions with WASA about expanding this innovative process to treat the entire flow through the plant. The result would be that WASA will have slashed excess nitrogen discharges to the Potomac by over half, demonstrating both that the process can work on a large scale and that the Authority can be a leader in Chesapeake Bay protection and restoration.
When I appeared before your Committee last year, I said, "An independent authority can be focused on its mission," and that has indeed been the result.
Let me quickly up-date the Subcommittee on the status of the various enforcement actions we undertook in 1996.
Citing a series of violation of drinking water standards going back to 1993, the EPA proposed an Administrative Order against the city in November of 1995. Because of the government shut-downs that occurred that winter, we were unable to hold a public hearing on the proposed order until April of last year. We continued to negotiate with the city on the final order in an effort to get them to agree to its provisions. (These types of administrative orders make compliance easier to achieve because the offending party agreed to the provisions of the order from the beginning.) Quite frankly I had nearly run out of patience with the City and was ready to impose the conditions of the order unilaterally when the City again violated the Safe Drinking Water Act in June, 1996, by having excessive total coliform bacteria in its distribution system. Against that backdrop, on July 12, 1996, the City agreed to the terms of the order. The problem with total coliform bacteria, or biofilm or regrowth in the distribution system, continued throughout the summer, causing additional violations in July and August of 1996.
The conditions of the drinking water order are very extensive. They include:
- setting up a new public notification system when violations occur;
- developing a new monitoring and sampling plan;
- flushing and disinfection programs for all storage facilities;
- a cross connection control program;
- a storage tank rehab and maintenance program;
- a corrosion control treatment and monitoring program;
- a detailed financial management plan;
- a valve repair and replacement program; and
- regular reports on progress.
The key component of the order was the development of the detailed Remediation Plan, including the financing plan to support the outlined work. The final Plan was approved by EPA on March 6 of this year and is automatically incorporated into the Administrative Order.
WASA has done a very significant amount of work to meet the conditions of this Order. For example, reservoirs have been cleaned and disinfected in a timely fashion. The Authority has a good flushing program underway and has initiated improved training for its operations staff regarding cross connections and disinfection programs. While we have been impressed with the breadth and quality of the work done so far, not every facet of the Administrative Order is being fully implemented. For example, WASA submitted, and EPA has approved, a significantly improved bacteria sampling plan on June 2, 1997. WASA is several months behind, however, on the installation of new samplers. We do not view these deficiencies as critical at this time, but we are carefully monitoring and working with the Authority to insure compliance with all the elements of the Order.
Because of numerous permit violations at the Blue Plains plant, EPA went to federal court on April 4, 1996, taking the City to task for violations of the Clean Water Act. At the same time, we proposed a series of steps that the District would have to take in order to resolve the case. We required the City, and subsequently WASA when it assumed control of the facility, to meet very specific operational performance standards and to undertake eight specific projects, ranging from rehabilitation of the nitrification settling basin to installation of primary sludge screens. The Commonwealth of Virginia challenged that settlement in court in May, and I expressed my concern at your June 12, 1996 hearing that such a challenge could delay progress at the plant. Fortunately, we were able to reach an informal agreement with the District for them to go ahead with the provisions of the Order even before the Court formally ruled on the issue. After hearing (and dismissing) the Commonwealth's arguments, the Order was finally entered in August of 1996. Today, I can report that WASA has met every one of the performance measures we established and, as of last month, had completed all eight projects. And the Authority did so both ahead of schedule and under budget estimates. Clearly, a new day is upon us.
While extraordinary progress has been made by the new Authority, I would be remiss if I were to suggest to the Subcommittee that all is well with the drinking and waste water operations in the District and surrounding jurisdictions. There are four issues that I would like to call to your attention.
Procurement and Personnel Rules
WASA continues to operate under the cumbersome procurement and personnel rules of the District of Columbia. New rules are in the works, but until they are fully implemented (and any potential legal hurdles overcome), the EPA will continue to be concerned about WASA's ability to respond in a timely and efficient fashion to emerging issues or unforeseen problems.
Much of the infrastructure that WASA operates is very old -- some of the pipes date back to the Civil War era and even many of the major components of the Blue Plains facility are nearing the end of their useful lives. Preventive maintenance is especially important with these older systems, and it is an issue we have raised with WASA on a number of occasions. While the Authority is busy with major new capital projects, its is vital that there be a commitment from WASA's leadership to the less exciting, but no less important, tasks of daily and routine preventive maintenance.
Disposition of the Aqueduct
In the complicated arrangement that has developed over time, the Army Corps of Engineers continues to operate the Washington Aqueduct, which prepares the drinking water for the City and many Virginia customers. Under a provision of the Safe Drinking Water Act amendments of 1996, the Corps is to turn over operation of the Aqueduct to a non-federal entity within two years. I want to stress that the Corps' current operation of the Aqueduct is excellent. The Congress has granted the Corps the unique ability to borrow Treasury funds so that it can go ahead with vitally-needed capital improvements. Until the ownership issue is settled and any new operator has demonstrated an equally high level of performance, however, we will continue to be concerned about this absolutely critical link in the preparation of drinking water for the people who live in the District, Arlington and Falls Church as well as countless tourists who visit annually.
Reorganization of District Government
Some of the key functions relating to the Clean Water Act in the City fall under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Regulation Administration (ERA) in the District's Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Eighteen months ago the Mayor proposed to reorganize a number of City functions, and his new plan called for ERA's functions to be consolidated in an environmental health administration in the Department of Health. We have worked extensively with top management in the Department of Health to prepare them for all of these functions, which range from air pollution to hazardous waste management as well as water pollution control programs. We fully support the move of these operations from DCRA to the Department of Health, but are quite frankly frustrated that the City's remaining environmental functions remain in limbo. The failure of the District and the Control Board to provide a home for these functions virtually assures that they will continue to lack the kind of leadership that is necessary to revitalize them. And, as they play an important role in some of the permitting requirements for WASA, the failure to institute these changes in a timely fashion leaves a major gap in the effective and efficient implementation of the drinking water and waste water operations for which WASA is responsible.
In a similar vein, there is an on-going dispute between the City and WASA about which entity has responsibility for the District's storm water sewer system. As you know, storm water carries vast quantities of contaminants into the City's rivers. Efforts to clean up the Anacostia in particular will continue to be hampered until we can sort out who is in charge and how we can meet the enormous financial hurdles of this ubiquitous urban problem.
We have all worked well collaboratively -- the Authority, the Congress and the EPA -- to put the crises of last year firmly behind us. We all recognize that we still have a lot of hard work ahead of us to continue the improvements that will better protect human health and the environment. A number of chronic problems have not yet been fully addressed, but clearly the new authority is on a solid footing and continued progress can be expected.
The most important impediments to the effective functioning of the new Authority may lie just beyond the organizational structure of the Authority itself. The future of the Washington Aqueduct is key to the future of safe and clean drinking water for both the District and for residents of Arlington and Falls Church. Similarly, the effective reorganization of City government functions will play a key role in establishing the kind of local regulatory control that will help assure the protection of human health and the environment for the entire Washington Metropolitan area.
In short, EPA has taken aggressive steps to protect the health and safety of the residents of Washington and the surrounding communities and to protect the aquatic environment of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. We will continue to do so. In the meantime we urge the Subcommittee to continue the effective leadership that you have provided in recent years. We stand ready to continue working with you to address any of the remaining issues that could derail the substantial progress that has been made over the past year.
Thank you again, Mr. Chairman, for giving me the chance to appear before the Subcommittee, and I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.