A federal court settlement filed today is expected to dramatically cut sewage pollution in D.C.'s rivers, according to environmental groups that sued to curb the pollution. The settlement requires the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) to curtail the discharge of billions of gallons of sewage overflows into the Anacostia River, the Potomac, 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 rainstorms, the system cannot handle the combined flow, and overflows directly into the District's rivers. More than three billion gallons of overflows currently occur in an average year. Bacteria levels in these discharges are often thousands of times over safe levels, making it unhealthy to swim, fish, or in some cases, even boat in area waterways.
The settlement requires WASA to build large underground tunnels to store the sewage and rainwater until storms subside, when it can be pumped to the Blue Plains wastewater plant for treatment. Along with other controls, the tunnels are expected to cut sewage overflows by 97% to the Anacostia River, 93% to the Potomac, and 90% to Rock Creek in an average year.
The settlement comes in a federal court lawsuit initially brought by Earthjustice on behalf the Anacostia Watershed Society, Friends of the Earth, Sierra Club, Kingman Park Civic Association, and American Canoe Association. The federal government later filed a similar suit against WASA, and the two cases have since proceeded together. The settlement filed today was negotiated between the federal government and WASA, and still requires approval from U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan.
"This is a major step toward making the District's rivers safe for fishing and swimming," said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. "We're finally headed toward curbing the billions of gallons of sewage overflows that occur every year in the nation's capital."
"We now have real hope for clean water in our community," said Chris Weiss of Friends of the Earth. "For the first time in more than a 100 years, we have a concrete plan to stop most of the sewage overflows in the District."
"Cleaning up raw sewage from our rivers will have enormous benefits for everyone, both now and for generations to come," said Robert Boone of the Anacostia Watershed Society. "This is a vital step toward restoring the Anacostia for use and enjoyment by people of all ages."
"Curbing these sewage discharges will bring us closer to the day when these rivers and creeks -- part of the natural heritage of our nation's capitol -- will once again be safe and enjoyable for citizens who rely on them for drinking water and for recreation," said Paul Sanford, Director of Stewardship and Public Policy for the American Canoe Association.
The settlement provides for completion of the first tunnel in about 13 years, and the remaining tunnels in 20 years. The environmental groups expressed hope that this schedule would be speeded up, and that the federal government would help pay for the cost. "The schedule is apparently based on the assumption that WASA will not get any federal aid for these projects," said Marchant Wentworth of the Sierra Club. "We hope to work with WASA and others to secure funding from Congress so the cleanup work can proceed much faster and D.C. raterpayers can get some relief."
A partial settlement negotiated by all the parties last year requires upgrades in the sewer system and pump stations that are expected to cut overflows by 40% over the next five years. That settlement also required WASA to provide $2 million for environmentally beneficial projects in the Anacostia watershed, and to provide better public notice when sewage overflows are occurring.
David Baron, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x220
Paul Sanford, American Canoe Association, 703-451-0141 x 20
James Connolly, Anacostia Watershed Society, 301-699-6204
Chris Weiss, Friends of the Earth, 202-222-0746
Frazer Walton, Kingman Park Civic Association, 202-584-7572
Marchant Wentworth, Sierra Club, 202-223-6133
David Baron/Cat Lazaroff, 202-667-4500
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