A whistle blower who was fired in 2003 by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority for exposing the dangerous levels of lead in the city’s water was ordered reinstated last week. The judge’s ruling closes a bad chapter in the sewer authority’s history. The agency must now proactively attack the problem of the city’s aging sewers.
Seema S. Bhat was the first to notify the Environmental Protection Agency about the District’s dangerously high lead levels in 2001 and 2002, an act that circumvented WASA’s chain of command.
“By reaching out to the EPA, she forced the lead issue to the forefront of her supervisor’s agenda, and shortly thereafter, he recommended that she be fired,” wrote Hon. Stuart A. Levin, an administrative judge with the Department of Labor, in his 186-page ruling.
Levin also awarded Bhat thousands of dollars in back pay, and exemplary and compensatory damages??. These could total over $500,000, Bhat’s attorney, Bryan J. Schwartz, said.
A federal investigator ordered Bhat reinstated only a few months after her firing, but WASA chose to appeal the case immediately. According to the Washington Post, WASA officials portrayed Bhat as a renegade employee whose actions actually delayed the sewer authority’s attempts to address the most recent lead problem. Judge Levin found that while Bhat had made mistakes while on the job, WASA also discriminated against her as a whistleblower.
WASA only responded to the city’s lead problem in 2004, facing intense public pressure and a critical article in the Washington Post. Chemicals were added to the city’s water supply to prevent lead from leaching into the water, and WASA distributed free water filters throughout the city. Still, lead levels remained above the federal action limit until this spring.
The actions that WASA has taken and the promises it has made for the future are in no small measure due to the work of Bhat. She risked her job for a principle, and helped push WASA to make the city’s water safer to use. The supervisors who originally recommended Bhat’s termination have since left WASA.
In September, we wrote about the one and a half billion gallons of sewage and storm water that flow in the Anacostia River alone every year. Between the tap water’s lead levels and the highly polluted rivers, D.C.’s sewer system is clearly a mess that the whole city must work together to clean up.
The sewer authority, however, must be the leader in this process, and it must work to put its history of mismanagement, secrecy and disorder?of which Seema Bhat’s case is an example?into the past. If not, the capital city’s sewer system will continue to be an embarrassment to the entire country.