Drinking Water, Air Pollution Should Be Top Priorities for Nation's Capital

November 08, 1996

WASHINGTON, DC -- Researchers at Resources for the Future (RFF) have released the findings of a study of the District of Columbia's environmental conditions that pinpoints the city's often-unsafe drinking water and growing air pollution as problems of highest priority. The study, which is one of the first and most comprehensive efforts to determine what the District's environmental priorities should be, included interviews with city residents as well as environmental experts and representatives of the federal and DC governments.

"Washington's environmental problems are clearly intertwined with its crises in finance, management, education, and public safety," says Terry Davies, director of RFF's Center for Risk Management and co-author of the 79-page report with Nicole Darnall. "The state of the District's environment is extremely important in terms of attracting and keeping both businesses and residents there, which in turn directly affects the District's tax base and financial health."

Titled "Environmental Priorities for the District of Columbia," the report suggests some remedies for the city's environmental problems, including the creation of a District environmental agency that could provide leadership and accountibility for the city's environmental affairs; the establishment of a regular environmental report that would provide key facts and figures on all aspects of DC's environment; and an increase in environmental education.

RFF's report is based, in part, on interviews with 345 city residents and 23 stakeholders. The latter included environmental experts familiar with issues in the District, and representatives of federal and local governments, including the White House and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Researchers divided the District's environmental problems into eight categories: air pollution, drinking water quality, water pollution of the Anacostia River, water pollution of the Potomac River, trash, lead poisoning, hazardous waste, and parks. City residents were asked to identify the city's most important problems, and stakeholders were asked to prioritize the list of environmental issues and suggest possible ways to help remedy these problems.

In determining a ranking for DC's environmental priorities, RFF researchers evaluated each type of problem against four criteria: public concern about the problem, severity of health effects, number of people affected, and ecological and aesthetic effects.

The top four problems identified, in order of importance, are: drinking water, air pollution, water quality in the Anacostia River, and lead poisoning (see fact sheet below). Recommendations for resolving the District's problems begin with the creation of a separate, DC environmental agency (see fact sheet of RFF's suggestions below).

"When examining the city's environmental problems, one of the first questions we asked was `where is the District's environmental agency?'" says Davies. " Unlike most cities and all fifty states, D.C. doesn't have one_not even one tucked into a larger public health department."

Most of the city's environmental functions are administered through the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, although others are carried out by the Department of Public Works and other city agencies. But the District's environmental problems are serious enough to warrant a distinct agency that could provide leadership and be held accountable for dealing with the numerous environmental challenges, says Davies.

"It's possible that many of the environmental problems identified here could be resolved a decade from now, given political commitment and managerial competence," adds Davies. "But until the institutional problems are addressed, financial worries should remain secondary in the environment debate."

RFF's DC environmental report was commissioned by the Summit Fund of Washington, an organization that encourages, supports and funds innovative approaches and activities that can lead to systemic change in the Washington, DC community_change that will enhance the lives of the citizens of our area and the environment in which we live. The report was prepared at their request, but does not necessarily represents the Fund's views.
RFF is an independent, nonprofit organization that has analyzed environmental policy and contributed to its formation for the past 45 years. Its research staff represents one of the largest groups of economists and policy analysts devoted to environmental and natural resource issues working under one roof anywhere in the world.

Media representatives interested in speaking to Terry Davies about this environmental report should contact Michael Tebo in RFF's public affairs office at (202) 328-5019.

Drinking Water. Sixty-seven percent of residents identified drinking water as the most important environmental issue facing Washington today. Since 1993, the city has issued several "boil water alerts" after officials detected unsafe levels of coliform bacteria in the drinking water system. This year, the city failed EPA inspections three months in a row when unhealthy bacteria levels surfaced, despite a system-wide flushing and disinfection of water pipes with chlorine. The EPA has since advised the city to modernize its water distribution system, and the District has agreed to upgrade the system over the next six years at an estimated cost of $200-400 million.

Air Pollution. Although ozone levels in the District have decreased in the past twenty years, ozone remains as the area's primary air pollutant. Motor vehicle emissions account for about 70 percent of the city's ozone, with the Department of Public Works estimating that about 800,000 vehicles enter the city each weekday. Although the EPA ranks the District's air quality among the top one-third of U.S. cities, Washington periodically exceeds the national standard for ozone and carbon monoxide, most often in the summertime when the air becomes stagnant as the temperature climbs and there is little wind.

The Anacostia River. During severe storms, the combined street runoff and sewer water flowing to treatment plants often backs up and overflows into the city's surface waters. The overflow often contains raw sewage that would otherwise be treated. A 1992 National Wildlife Federation study estimated that the Anacostia River receives 60 percent of the District's combined sewer overflow, and regularly exceeds public health standards for coliform bacteria after significant rain storms. Fish caught in the Anacostia are also a potential health threat to those who eat them.

Lead poisoning. A major source of lead is paint. Although lead-based paints were outlawed in 1978, a 1992 Department of Health and Human Services audit found that almost 75 percent of existing housing units in the District were built prior to 1978, and much of the leaded paint remains in these homes today. A 1993 study showed that blood levels in the District's inner-city contain lead that is 60 percent higher than for children of similar ages in suburban and rural settings. Lead is also found in the District's drinking water. In 1993, the District announced that 25 percent of the water taps it tested contained lead concentrations greater than the EPA standard. To reduce the public's lead exposure, the District began in 1987 to replace some 28,000 lead service lines that connect the city's water mains with private property. As of 1992, only 882 lines had been replaced, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Create a D.C. Environmental Agency. A separate environmental department with clear responsibilities and accountability is needed. Most of the environmental responsibilities for the District are contained in its Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, although other environmental functions are carried out by the Department of Public Works and other city agencies.

Take Advantage of Available Funds for Ranking Priorities. The EPA provides grants to states and a few localities to establish environmental priorities. The District should apply for such a grant, and there is reason to be optimistic that the EPA would respond positively. The District government could use this kind of grant to marshall political consensus behind a set of priorities so that action is taken to address the problems identified.

Create a D.C. Environmental Report. Many essential facts and figures about the District's environmental situation are either unavailable or of dubious quality. The creation of a regular environmental quality report could facilitate formal priority-setting and foster community cooperation and understanding of environmental initiatives.

Foster Community Cooperation. There are a number of District institutions that could play important roles in solving environmental problems, but that generally do not cooperate or even communicate with each other. While the Summit Fund supports efforts to bring the environmental groups together informally, this community collaboration needs to be strengthened and is necessary in part because of the weakness of the formal governmental institutions dealing with environmental problems.

Increase Education about the Environment. Because one-eighth of those questioned in our survey could not name a single environmental problem, there is a need for more environmental education from schools and community, environmental and social organizations for both children and adults.

Resources for the Future (RFF)

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