As safe drinking water has become an ongoing concern for residents of Washington, D.C., the issue occasionally has spilled over into the sinks and water fountains of Capitol Hill.
Those who have been on the Hill for at least a few years might well remember when the Architect of the Capitol began posting ubiquitous red-and-white signs in early 2005 warning staff and visitors against consuming water from fixtures throughout the campus following citywide concerns about lead in the water. Today, staff and visitors are still discouraged from using bathroom sinks to obtain drinking water and most offices purchase bottled water for consumption. [IMGCAP(1)]
Meanwhile, just this spring, area environmental groups along with parents of public school students began lobbying the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct vigorous testing of water supplies that feed the D.C. public school system after tests revealed high levels of lead in five public schools, one of which is located on Capitol Hill.
So it wasn’t completely unexpected when Rep. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) asked the acting Architect of the Capitol during a recent Capitol Visitor Center progress hearing if the water in the faucets and fountains of the new facility will be safe for public consumption. Udall, who usually keeps his CVC questions focused on environmental issues, was assured by acting AOC Stephen Ayers that the CVC’s 26 public water fountains and the faucets in the facility’s 26 public restrooms would indeed provide safe water (as would faucets in the numerous private bathrooms in the House and Senate expansion space).
On Monday, AOC spokeswoman Eva Malecki elaborated on Ayers’ positive assertion, explaining that new construction is not susceptible to recent years’ problems.
In response to mounting citywide concerns over lead-infused water in 2004 and 2005, the EPA advised the AOC that obtaining drinking water from any restroom sink should be discouraged, Malecki explained in an e-mail Monday. That included some office kitchenette sinks that might have been of restroom-type construction.
“The reason for this advisory was that standards restricting the amount of lead that can leach from plumbing components have only been in place since 1996 and the standards exempt some types of bathroom faucets,” Malecki wrote. “Many restroom sinks installed throughout the Capitol complex pre-date that standard.”
The issue came to a head on Capitol Hill in 2005 when the Office of Compliance issued a citation against the AOC because lead was found to exceed safety levels in drinking water at all three Library of Congress buildings.
In response to those test results, the AOC temporarily shut down the drinking water system throughout the Adams Building for repairs, and the agency provided bottled water to employees in that facility. In addition, six drinking fountains in the Madison Building and three in the Jefferson Building were temporarily removed from service.
During the same time, the AOC conducted comprehensive water sampling and testing of all Capitol Hill drinking fountains and kitchen, kitchenette and restroom faucets, Malecki explained.
“The few fixtures that exceeded the EPA’s recommended limits were immediately taken out of service and repaired,” she wrote.
Today the AOC conducts annual samplings of its primary drinking water sources, but “the use of restroom fixtures in the Office Buildings and the Capitol to obtain drinking water is still discouraged due to their age (which pre-date 1996 standards),” Malecki wrote. However, “due to the fact that the CVC is new construction, this will not be an issue with regard to the water fixtures in the CVC.”
The early 2005 incident, however, is just one part of the story when it comes to concerns over safe drinking water on Capitol Hill.
Going back more than a decade to 1991, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), then chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health and the Environment, and 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, the Ford House Office Building registered the most notable violations, and its drinking fountains 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.