Capitol Hill Gets the Lead Out

Offices Spend Big on Water

Posted June 27, 2005 at 6:28pm

When the discovery of high levels of lead in the drinking water prompted the Architect of the Capitol to undertake a comprehensive study of the Congressional water supply earlier this year, reaction on Capitol Hill was, for the most part, muted.

Given the more than 20,000 Congressional employees on the Hill, one might expect outrage from those exposed to lead contamination. But an examination of Congressional spending records, as well as interviews with dozens of House and Senate employees, suggest that very few Members or their staffs actually drink from the Hill’s water supply.

An analysis of disbursement records for the first quarter of 2005 found House Members’ personal offices spent approximately $127,000 on bottled water, a figure that suggests the chamber’s annual spending on water exceeds a half-million dollars. And adding in leadership and committee offices, the total is likely quite higher.

Similar records are not available from the Senate, which eliminated detailed office supply expenditures from its spending reports in 2000; however, an informal survey found comparable trends in individual offices.

Interviews with Congressional staff suggest that recent incidents, including the 2004 discovery of elevated lead levels by the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority and reports in early January of lead contamination in drinking water in all three Library of Congress buildings (the source of the most vocal complaints), have primarily served to reinforce established drinking habits.

“[It] prevents us from thinking about it too much, we don’t drink out of the fountains and neither do constituents that come visit our office,” Bret Ladine, a spokesman for Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Calif.), said of the office’s water supply.

‘Healthy Bunch’

According to statistics compiled by Roll Call, the average House office spent approximately $289 from its Members Representational Allowance on bottled water, including both water coolers and individual bottles, during the period stretching from November 2004 to March 2005 (most offices included late-2004 water figures in their first 2005 quarterly reports).

Among the 440 individual House offices surveyed, expenditures varied widely, from a handful that recorded no water-related expenses to a trio of lawmakers whose tallies topped the $1,000 mark.

Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) recorded the largest total water expenditure at more than $1,600, although it should be noted that the Golden State lawmaker’s tab includes an annual $1,500 payment to Mountain Valley Water of Maryland.

Also topping the list are Reps. Stephanie Herseth (D-S.D.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who each spent significant funds to stock their offices with drinking water, paying out $1,270 and $1,055, respectively.

Although quarterly spending reports do not make clear whether those figures include supplies for district offices, and neither of the two offices provided comment for this article, interviews with other Hill aides suggest the scenario is not unlikely.

Still, other offices with notable water bills acknowledged that staff simply consume large quantities of water while at work, with a good portion of those gallons going to the office coffee pot.

“We have an office that consumes a lot of water,” said Rep. John Carter’s (R-Texas) spokeswoman, Gretchen Hamel. The office recorded spending just more than $949 on water in its first quarterly report of 2005.

“We’re a pretty healthy bunch,” she added. “We drink a lot of water and make a few pots of coffee a day.”

While the office has maintained its own water supply since the Texas lawmaker arrived on Capitol Hill in 2003 — “We’ve never really used tap water,” Hamel said — the spokeswoman added that the action isn’t in response to any concern for the local water system.

Even among the 14 House offices that listed no water-related expenditures in their initial 2005 quarterly reports, inquiries showed that fewer than half actually lack access to filtered water.

Several of the offices included freshman lawmakers, such as Reps. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) and Allyson Schwartz (D-Pa.), whose spokesmen said that water services were acquired after the reporting period ended.

In New York Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel’s Rayburn House Office Building suite, staff make do with a faucet-mounted water filter maintained for the past several years on a kitchenette sink, explained spokesman Gary Meltz.

“Everyone seems happy with it,” Meltz added, noting that the filter had been in place long before the publication of recent reports of lead content in the city water supply.

While staff in Rep. Ray LaHood’s (R-Ill.) office have access to bottled water, no expenditures show up in the Republican’s quarterly spending reports because aides pool their own funds to pay for the service.

Six staffers currently chip in to fund the service — Deputy Chief of Staff Joan DeBoer noted that office interns are not required to enroll to have access to the water — which costs between $60 and $70 per month for a cooler and seven 5-gallon jugs.

Aides in other “dry” offices, including those of Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), provide their own water.

“I think most people — because we don’t have a water cooler — have just been buying bottled water,” spokeswoman Alexia Poe said of Lamar’s office in the Hart Senate Office Building. “The fountains around our office don’t always work, so I think most people don’t depend on those.”

Because Congressional offices are responsible for purchasing supplies individually, obtaining an estimate of the volume of water delivered to the Hill is nearly impossible.

According to quarterly disbursement records published by the House, much of the water consumed on the Hill is provided by Nestlé Waters North America, Inc., through its Deer Park subsidiary.

“We do have longstanding customers on Capitol Hill,” said Jane Lazgin, director of corporate communications for Nestlé Waters North America.

Lazgin acknowledged that the offices do not receive special pricing beyond those offers available to other customers, but she declined to provide information on how much water the company delivers to the Hill in any given time period.

“We treat these [offices] as individual customers and our logs of customers just like any others, and for that reason we don’t disclose information about who our customers are for their own purposes, as well as for obvious business competitive reasons,” she added.

‘Rather Be Safe Than Sorry’

Prompted by the discovery of lead contamination in water at all three LOC buildings in early 2005, the Architect of the Capitol initiated a comprehensive survey of drinking water across the Hill that is now in its final stages.

The earlier LOC test results found drinking water in excess of the maximum lead safety levels of 20 parts per billion set by the Environmental Protection Agency, and resulted in an Office of Compliance citation against the Architect.

The incident also led to the posting of ubiquitous red-and-white signs warning against consuming water from fixtures throughout the Capitol campus.

The early-2005 incident, however, is not an anomaly in the Hill’s water history.

More than a decade earlier in 1991, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), then chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on health and the environment, along with Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) organized aides to test water sources in the Capitol and its offices buildings as well as the LOC and the Supreme Court.

(At the time, both lawmakers had introduced legislation to lower acceptable levels of lead in drinking water under EPA guidelines.)

While the experiment uncovered unsafe drinking water in locales across the Hill — maximum lead safety levels at the time were set at 50 parts per billion — the Ford House Office Building registered the most notable violations, and drinking fountains in that building were shut off, and later replaced.

The incident also sparked then-Architect of the Capitol George White to pledge to reduce the lead content to meet federal guidelines, while also prompting some House offices to move to bottled water.

Additional testing in 1992 found high lead content in drinking fountains in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, which AOC officials attributed to lead-based sediment that had accumulated in a holding tank that supplied the fountains.

During the same period, regular testing in the Library buildings likewise found problems within that agency’s water system.

Despite remedial measures to address all of those discoveries as they appeared, more than a decade later Waxman said he remains leery of consuming water from fixtures anywhere on the Hill.

“I wouldn’t drink it,” said the California lawmaker, who did not play a role in the most recent round of quality tests.

“I would rather be safe than sorry myself,” added Waxman, whose office spent about $261 on bottled water in early 2005. He likewise said he would recommend bottled water to visitors and others.

In the Dirksen Building office of Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), the staff consumes about 13 5-gallon bottles of water each month, as well as another 48 24-ounce bottles.

“The lead in the pipes is definitely part of the concern,” said Burns spokeswoman Jennifer O’Shea.

Nevertheless, many of the offices interviewed for this article said the most recent round of testing had little or no impact on their day-to-day habits, noting that bottled water is already widely available.

“That hasn’t really affected us,” said Rep. Chet Edwards’ (D-Texas) Chief of Staff, Chris Chwastyk. The office spent slightly more than $200 on water in early 2005. “We’ve been getting bottled water for as long as I’ve been here.”

Results from the most recent round of water testing appear to have heralded positive results.

According to statistics from testing conducted earlier this year, AOC officials found approximately 90 percent of the Congressional drinking water supply tested within safety limits, while 10 percent may contain lead above suggested federal limits.

AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki said the office is continuing to test private water sources including those in office bathrooms and kitchenettes but said the majority of private offices have returned test results below the maximum lead safety levels.

Rising Costs

Despite those apparently positive results — which have been distributed to Congressional offices on a building-specific basis as well as to individual offices — an examination of House disbursement reports for those offices with the highest expenditures in 2005 shows a significant increase from the same period in 2004.

Official House disbursement reports show Stark’s office spent about $1,157 in 2004 (including an annual payment of $1,044), or $475 more in the same period this year.

Similarly, sizeable increases can be found in the accounts of several lawmakers, including Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Lois Capps (D-Calif.), as well as Upton and Carter.

The Bay State lawmaker recorded an increase of nearly $422 to $943 in 2005, while Capps marked an increase of $444 over her 2004 spending to $771.

Bottled water expenses more than doubled in both Upton’s office, from $518 in 2004 to $1,055 in recent reports, and in Carter’s office, from $452 to $949 in 2005.

Among those marking smaller increases were Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), who spent approximately $114 more than the previous year, as well as Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who increased his water purchases by about $124 to $844 in early 2005.

Moreover, the spending fluctuations are not likely the results of price increases. Nestlé Waters North America spokeswoman Lazgin said the company has not raised its fees during the past 12 months, however, it has seen an increase in the volume of water ordered by Congressional offices during that time.

One House aide suggested the recent spate of warnings at least vindicated existing habits in the office.

“There’s been a perception for a long time that bottled water is healthier,” said Josh Freed, spokesman for Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).

When media reports surfaced in 2004 on elevated lead levels in the city’s water supply, which serves Capitol Hill, Freed said, “within the office, it only reinforced use of bottled water that had already been going on.”

The Centennial State lawmaker’s office ranks among the top 10 purchasers of water in early 2005 according to spending reports, paying out $784 to Deer Park Water and Colorado-based Deep Rock Water.

“Coloradans like to stay healthy and hydrated,” Freed quipped, then added: “Pretty much everyone always seems to have a filled glass or bottle of water that they’re drinking.”

A Republican aide who works in the Dirksen Building likewise defended the funds put toward drinking water, stating: “Given that you cannot drink water out of any of the taps in this building, and that water is one of those necessities like air that you need to survive, it’s not remarkable that Senators would provide their staff with water to drink.”

LOC’s ‘Water Crisis’

In the meantime, employees at the LOC said they remain concerned about the quality of water in their buildings.

Unlike House and Senate offices, the Library does not purchase bottled water for its employees, instead leaving many to pool their own funds to provide drinking water.

“I think it’s fair to say we have a water crisis,” said Nan Thompson Ernst, an employee in the Library’s Manuscript Division and a representative of the LOC Professional Guild. “It is more urgent here because we’re having to pay for it ourselves.”

Guild President Saul Schniderman has similarly argued that providing bottled water is not a solution to the drinking water problems, which guild officials document dating back to the late 1980s in the Madison Building, which houses a majority of LOC employees.

Library employees prompted the most recent water tests, as well as the subsequent Office of Compliance citation, when they sought safety and health inspections in 2004.

“In the coming years thousands of visitors from around the nation and the world will be coming to visit Capitol Hill. Surely we don’t want them to take the message home with them: ‘Don’t drink the water on Capitol Hill,” said Schniderman, who heads the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 2910.

John McArdle, Jared Allen and Luke Mullins contributed to this report.