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Environmentalists Seek Court's Help to Clean up Anacostia River

EPA's pollution standards for river too lenient, violate Clean Water Act
November 1, 2002
Washington, DC —

Earthjustice and Friends of the Earth today are challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in court over inadequate limits on the discharge of pollutants into the Anacostia River.

The river is currently so severely polluted that the government warns District of Columbia area residents of health risks from swimming or fishing in its waters. The Clean Water Act requires EPA to address the continuing pollution problems plaguing the Anacostia by approving or establishing "total maximum daily loads" (TMDLs) for each relevant pollutant. These pollutant loads must be set at a level necessary to bring the Anacostia into full compliance with water quality standards. In a legal brief submitted today, Earthjustice and Friends of the Earth allege that the first two TMDLs established for the Anacostia -- one for biochemical oxygen demand and one for total suspended solids -- are insufficient to achieve compliance with the applicable standards.

"The Anacostia has the potential to become the District's crown jewel, but instead it's a public health threat," said Keri Powell of Earthjustice. "Congress passed the Clean Water Act with the goal of making every waterway fishable and swimmable. Now, 30 years later, we have a river flowing through the heart of the nation's capital that still falls drastically short of that goal."

The groups expressed particular concern with the TMDLs because they allow for averaging of pollution levels over long periods of time -- as much as a year -- whereas the Clean Water Act clearly states that EPA must enforce daily limits. According to Powell, the pollutants are capable of doing grave damage even if their levels are elevated only briefly. "Fish and plants will die from short-term water quality changes. Murky, polluted water keeps people from enjoying the river even if it only occurs on some days," said Powell. "Long-term averages don't address the real, immediate impacts of pollution."

Pollution in the Anacostia River is caused largely by the discharge of sewage and stormwater runoff into the river during and shortly after rainfall. Much of the District is still served by an antiquated combined sewer system in which sewage from homes and businesses is combined with rainwater draining from streets. Even relatively light rainfall can exceed the capacity of the pipes, resulting in the discharge of raw sewage and stormwater directly into the river.


"We've been battling the District for years over their failure to prevent stormwater and sewage discharge into the river, effectively turning a blind eye to the health and safety of local residents," said Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder. "Now the EPA is putting a stamp of approval on the District's gross negligence in regard to the Anacostia River. In doing so, EPA is not only breaking the law, but also robbing District residents of the chance someday to enjoy a safe, clean Anacostia River."

The Anacostia has suffered high pollution levels for decades and the state of the waterway has been long-neglected by local public health authorities. Earthjustice filed this suit last spring on behalf of Friends of the Earth in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. (Friends of the Earth v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, Docket Nos. 02-1123 and 02-1124)


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