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Fight to Clean Up the Anacostia River Goes to Court

Pollutant caps for river too lenient, violate Clean Water Act
May 20, 2004
Washington DC —

Federally approved caps on pollutants flowing into the Anacostia River are inadequate to clean up the river, environmental advocates argue in court papers filed today.

Earthjustice, representing Friends of the Earth, filed a motion for summary judgment today charging that certain pollutant limits approved and issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are too weak. In particular, the limits do not require adequate cleanup of pollutant discharges that interfere with use of the Anacostia by area residents and visitors. Such discharges have so seriously polluted the river that the government warns against swimming or fishing in its waters.

"The Anacostia has the potential to become the District's crown jewel, but instead it's a muddy waterway that kills fish," said Howard Fox, the Earthjustice attorney handling the case. "Congress passed the Clean Water Act to make every waterway fishable and swimmable. Thirty years later, we have a river flowing through the heart of the nation's capital that still falls far short of that goal."

The Anacostia's poor water quality stems largely from discharge of sewage and stormwater into the river during and 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, causing discharge of raw sewage and stormwater directly into the river. In other parts of the District, separate storm sewers carry polluted stormwater from streets directly into the Anacostia.

"We've been battling for years against pollutant discharges into the Anacostia River," said Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder. "By putting a stamp of approval on pollutant caps that won't do the job, EPA is not only breaking the law, but also robbing District residents of the chance to enjoy this wonderful river."

The Clean Water Act requires EPA to address the continuing water quality 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 compliance with water quality standards. In today's motion, Earthjustice and Friends of the Earth argue that the first two TMDLs established for the Anacostia -- one for oxygen depletion and one for turbidity -- are too weak and allow continued violation of water quality standards.

For example, the TMDLs allow averaging of pollutant levels over long periods of time -- as much as a year -- even though the Clean Water Act requires that TMDLs be set as "daily" limits. According to Fox, even short doses of the pollutants are capable of doing serious damage. "Fish die from short-term pollutant peaks -- and murky, polluted water keeps people from enjoying the river even if it only occurs on some days," said Fox.

The case is Friends of the Earth v. EPA [Docket No. 04cv92 RMU], before the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

Additional contacts:

Howard Fox, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x 203


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