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Settlement Promises Cleaner Waters Around Washington DC

Sewer overflows to be slashed 40 percent
June 25, 2003
Washington DC —

Environmental and community groups have reached a partial settlement in a lawsuit aimed at reducing the flow of raw sewage into waterways in the District of Columbia. The settlement, filed today in federal court, will require approval by U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan.

Under the settlement, the DC Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) will adopt controls to curb combined sewer overflows (CSOs) to the Anacostia River, the Potomac River and Rock Creek. The overflows, which contain raw human sewage, occur because of DC's antiquated combined sewer system, which carries sewage and storm water in the same pipes. During heavy rainstorms, the system cannot handle the combined flow, and overflows directly in the District's rivers. More than three billion gallons of overflows occur in an average year. Bacteria counts in these discharges are often thousands of times over safe levels.

Measures required by the settlement are expected to cut sewer overflows by about 40 percent over the next five years. Settlement talks over a long-term plan to address the remaining overflows are still underway. The consent decree also provides for WASA to fund $2 million in greening projects along the Anacostia River, designed to cleanse polluted stormwater runoff from streets, industrial yards, and businesses.

"This settlement is a big step in the right direction," said David Baron, attorney for Earthjustice, which represented five environmental and community groups in the lawsuit: Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, Anacostia Watershed Society, Kingman Park Civic Association, and American Canoe Association. "It's a vital step toward the goal of making DC's waters safe for swimming and fishing."

"Each of the steps outlined in the consent decree represents concrete action that WASA will take now to improve water quality in the DC region," said Norman L. Dean, Executive Director of Friends of the Earth. "WASA won't have to wait for federal funding to begin improve water quality, but can start immediately."

After decades of inaction by local and federal officials on this problem, the environmental groups took WASA to court, charging that the CSOs violate permits issued under the federal Clean Water Act and DC law. Since the suit was filed in U.S. District Court in DC three years ago, the groups have been engaged in lengthy settlement discussions with WASA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which has since filed its own enforcement suit against WASA.

"This settlement means that WASA can take action right now to begin to stem to flow of raw sewage into the Anacostia, Potomac, and Rock Creek," said Marchant Wentworth, Clean Water chair for the Washington, DC Chapter of the Sierra Club. "We believe that the Low Impact Development projects funded as part of this settlement will demonstrate the potential of new solutions to reduce the flow of pollution into our waterways."

"We worked closely with WASA in structuring this five-year plan for reducing pollution by 40 percent," said Robert Boone of the Anacostia Watershed Society. "We are pleased to develop a cooperative solution with WASA to promote clean water. We urge EPA to move quickly to finalize action on WASA's longer-term plan to address remaining overflows to the Anacostia."

"The efforts of the community and other interested organizations to improve the environmental quality of the District of Columbia's water and sewage system has finally shown progress," said Frazer Walton, Jr., president of the Kingman Park Civic Association. "This settlement is historic, and we will continue to fight to see that the city's limited financial resources are used to address the critical and pressing infrastructure needs of our neighborhoods."

"This settlement will make the Potomac a cleaner and safer place to recreate," said David Jenkins of the American Canoe Association. "I just hope WASA will now accept its responsibility to safeguard the public and commit to a long-term solution."

The settlement is in the form of a consent decree that contains the following key components:

1. Fix the existing system: WASA has agreed to take near term steps to fix up its existing system so as to minimize overflows. At present, overflows occur even when the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant is not treating at its maximum capacity, due to a variety of defects in WASA's pumps, pipes, and treatment systems. The decree sets specific deadlines for correcting all of the defects - steps that are expected to cut sewage overflow volume by 40 percent over the next five years.

2. Public notice of overflows: WASA is required to post larger and more readable signs at CSO outfalls, and to install warning lights on both the Anacostia and Potomac to notify the public when overflows are occurring. The consent decree also requires WASA to post quarterly reports on its web site showing the volume and frequency of overflows at each CSO outfall.

3. Environmental projects: WASA has agreed to provide $2 million for environmentally beneficial projects in the Anacostia watershed. Of this, $300,000 is earmarked for roof garden demonstration projects, to be coordinated by Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The remaining $1.7 million will be directed toward projects to curb polluted runoff into the Anacostia, such as retrofitting parking lots and other paved areas with rain gardens. The decree also stipulates penalties for future violations of specified provisions of the decree.

CONTACTS:

David Baron, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x 220

Brian Dunkiel, Friends of the Earth, 802-951-9094

Robert Boone, Anacostia Watershed Society, 301-699-6204

David Jenkins, American Canoe Association, 703-451-0141 x 20

Marchant Wentworth, Sierra Club, 202-223-6133

Frazer Walton, Kingman Park Civic Association, 202-584-7572

Contacts

Cat Lazaroff, 202-667-4500 x 213

David Baron, 202-667-4500 x 213

About Earthjustice

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.