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D.C. Area Leaders Glean Lessons From Elk River Chemical Spill

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Aging pipes, not chemical spills, may be the real threat to water security around D.C.
Tim Raftery: http://www.flickr.com/photos/traftery/4303079987/
Aging pipes, not chemical spills, may be the real threat to water security around D.C.

The Jan. 9 Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia may now be three months in the past, but elected leaders in the D.C. region are still trying to learn lessons from the water emergency.

Stuart Freudberg, senior director of environment and public safety for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, says that unlike the area around Elk River, the D.C. Region doesn't have coal-mining-related chemical plants sitting on the banks of the Potomac. But he also says it would be foolish to think disaster couldn't strike here.

"Eighty percent of our water comes from the Potomac — you've got bridges going across there, sewer lines nearby — things can fail," Freudberg says. "So we have to be ready for that."

DC Water General Manager George Hawkins says one reason protecting the water supply is so important is the fragility of public trust. Concerns about the safety of drinking water near Elk River are likely to remain long after federal testing deems it healthy to consume.

"We want people to be confident in their drinking water — that's the most important thing," Hawkins says. "Once they lose confidence — it's very hard to get it back."

But our region's most difficult challenge may simply come down to aging pipes. Hawkins says most of D.C.'s 6-to-8 inch water mains are about 100 years old.

DC Water only has the resources to replace 1 percent of them each year. At that rate, the job won't be finished until another century has passed.

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