Reacting to a new proposed plan from the DC Water and Sewer Authority to be discussed at a public meeting tonight, concerned parties called the proposal grossly inadequate to protect DC rivers from dangerous levels of bacteria and other pollutants. The WASA plan is supposed to limit sewage that overflows into area rivers during rainstorms, but the plan will still allow more than 260 million gallons of overflows every year. At a news conference today, environmental groups, concerned citizens, medical experts, and DC Council Member Phil Mendelson joined to call for zero emissions of raw sewage into the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and Rock Creek and to call attention to Tuesday's scheduled WASA public meeting.
"The plan being proposed by WASA will not make our rivers safe, and our children deserve better than that," said David Baron, attorney for Earthjustice. "In fact, the new plan actually calls for a weakening of the District's clean water standards. It's simply unacceptable, in this day and age, to continue dumping huge quantities of raw sewage into the waters of the nation's capital."
At issue is the dumping of raw sewage that comes from DC's antiquated combined sewer system, which carries raw sewage and storm water together in the same pipes. During heavy rainstorms or prolonged rain events, runoff from the storms often overloads the system, and thus raw sewage flows into the Anacostia River, the Potomac River, and Rock Creek.
"The DC Water and Sewer Authority's Combined Sewer System Long-Term Control Plan is a good start," said Phil Mendelson, DC Council Member At-large. "But the District of Columbia, our nation's capital, can do better. Only when we develop a plan that eliminates all discharge of raw sewage can we be assured that we are making progress toward swimmable, fishable rivers and creeks. I urge WASA to try harder to develop a plan that will allow no sewage to flow into area rivers."
"These public works projects typically take longer than predicted and cost overruns are the norm," said Robert Boone, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society. "We would like to encourage WASA and their consultants to fully implement the nine minimum controls as required by EPA policy, to effect some results in the short term. Our goal is to stop the pollution."
"This plan accomplishes too little, too late," said Nancy Stoner of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We can do better."
For obvious reasons, raw sewage discharge can be extremely hazardous to human health and renders the water bodies unusable and unsafe. Bacteria counts in combined sewage discharges are often thousands of time over safe levels. Such pollution also threatens wildlife, produces offensive odors, and adds floating scum, turbidity, and other contaminants to the rivers.
Health experts expressed concern that raw sewage discharges will contribute to the occurrence of health problems such as salmonellosis, and other bacterial and viral gastrointestinal infections. "It is ridiculous that, at the beginning of the 21st century there is a proposal to continue to allow raw sewage to be in these bodies of water. If the DC Water and Sewer Authority wants to make protecting public health a primary goal they should come up with a new proposal," said Jerome A. Paulson, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine and Pediatrics, George Washington University Medical Center and Co-Director of the Mid-Atlantic Center For Children's Health and the Environment.
Substantial portions of the combined sewer overflows come from federal properties within the District, including the Capitol, the White House, and the Supreme Court. The groups charge that the federal government should help pay to clean up these discharges and to achieve a zero emissions output.
"Water quality in the District of Columbia is a national embarrassment. Toilets in the US Capitol regularly flush directly into the nearby Anacostia River, and billions of gallons of raw sewage and polluted storm water pour into the rivers and creeks of our nation's capitol each year," said Dr. Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth. "The federal government owns 42 percent of the land in Washington, DC – it's time for Congress to pay its fair share toward keeping our water clean."
"It is possible to adopt additional controls and achieve a goal of zero sewer overflows," said Baron. "But it will take the right kind of leadership, and a strong effort to meet clean water standards instead of relaxing them."
Earthjustice is the premier nonprofit environmental law organization. We wield the power of law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy, and to combat climate change. We are here because the earth needs a good lawyer.