Federal Court Upholds Suit Seeking Clean Water for the District of Columbia

A federal court in Washington, DC has rejected the US Environmental Protection Agency's attempt to dismiss a lawsuit concerning the District of Columbia's seriously polluted waters.


Howard Fox 202-667-4500

A federal court in Washington, D.C. has rejected the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to dismiss a lawsuit concerning the District of Columbia’s seriously polluted waters. In the lawsuit, citizens contend that EPA must set pollution caps for the Anacostia River, Potomac River, Rock Creek, and other polluted D.C. waters.

"Over a billion gallons of raw sewage are dumped into the Anacostia River every year, making it one of the nation’s most polluted rivers," said Howard Fox of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, attorney for the citizen groups. "The court has correctly refused to slam the courthouse door shut on citizens who simply want their city’s waters to be cleaned up."

Under the federal Clean Water Act, pollution caps for all polluted waters were supposed to be set by the District over two decades ago. Because the District has failed to do so, the suit asks that EPA be required to step in and prepare the caps. The court agreed, finding that that the District has exhibited "historic, longstanding recalcitrance," and that "[w]hile the District has neglected its obligations under Section 303(d) [of the Clean Water Act] for almost two decades, its waters have grown increasingly polluted."

In particular, the court found that "sewage discharges into District waters contain unsafe levels of fecal coliform bacteria. In some cases, this fecal coliform bacteria exist [sic] in levels a thousand times greater than the maximum safe-level for swimming.

Beyond fecal coliform, District waters boast unhealthy amounts of toxics, organic compounds, pathogens, bacteria, metals, nutrients, and oil and grease to name a few. Toxic pollutants have accumulated in sediments, are ingested by fish, and are ultimately ingested by District residents, who may, according to some studies, face an increased risk of cancer. Recently, the Anacostia River has been bestowed with the dubious distinction of being one of the ten most polluted rivers in the country."

The court rejected EPA’s argument that the agency has no responsibility to step in to correct this problem. Finding the agency’s arguments "entirely unreasonable," the court refused EPA’s request to dismiss the case. To the contrary, the court found that EPA has a mandatory duty to act in protection of the District’s waters.

"It is high time that the Anacostia and other District waters began to be treated as the priceless asset they could be, instead of the open sewer they have been allowed to become," said Robert Boone of Anacostia Watershed Society, one of the plaintiffs in the case. "The court has sent a clear message to the government that enough is enough the time for talk is past, and the time for clean water is long overdue."

The decision was issued August 31, 1999 by the United States District Court for the District of Columbia in Kingman Park Civic Association v. US Environmental Protection Agency, D.D.C. Civil #98-758 CKK. Plaintiffs in the case are Kingman Park Civic Association, Friends of the Earth, and Anacostia Watershed Society.


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