Raw Sewage Flows into Rivers from Capitol Hill and White House on Rainy Days


Howard Fox, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500


Elizabeth Berry, Friends of the Earth, 202-783-7400×112

Responding to a lawsuit brought by citizen groups, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agreed today to set pollution caps for the Anacostia River, the Potomac River, Rock Creek, and other polluted D.C. waters. Pollution caps, known as “Total Maximum Daily Loads” or TMDLs, guide efforts to attain clean water. Once the caps have been set, permits are revised, and polluters must clean up to comply with the permits. Today’s historic agreement is contained in a settlement that the EPA and the plaintiffs have submitted to the court.

“Over a billion gallons of raw sewage are discharged into the Anacostia River every year, making it one of the nation’s most polluted rivers,” said Howard Fox of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, the attorney for the citizen groups. “On rainy days, raw sewage even flows from Capitol Hill and the White House into the waters of our nation’s capital. Clean-up is decades behind schedule, and a strong push is needed to ensure that citizens will promptly be able to enjoy clean water.”

Under the federal Clean Water Act, the District was required to set pollution caps for all polluted waters over two decades ago. Because the District failed to do so, the suit asked that EPA be required to step in and prepare the caps. Initially, EPA asked the court to dismiss the case, but the court refused, stating that the District had exhibited “historic, longstanding recalcitrance,” and that “[w]hile the District has neglected its obligations under … [ the Clean Water Act] …, its waters have grown increasingly polluted.”

The decades of neglect have had serious environmental consequences. In particular, the court found that “sewage discharges into District waters contain unsafe levels of fecal coliform bacteria[,] [i]n some cases … 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.”

EPA and the citizens negotiated today’s settlement, which sets deadlines for EPA to prepare pollution caps, unless the District does so first. The settlement takes note of the District’s recent decision — at the strong urging of citizens — to substantially shorten its schedule for preparation of pollution caps. Under the District’s initial schedule, the city would have delayed setting pollution caps for the Anacostia until 2007, and completion of caps for all the District’s waters would have been delayed until 2011. Under the District’s new schedule, the District would set pollution caps for the Anacostia by 2000 and 2001, for Rock Creek by 2002, and for the Potomac and the remainder of the District’s waters by 2003 and 2004.

Should the District fail to meet its schedule, the settlement requires EPA to prepare caps for the Anacostia by 2001 and 2003, for Rock Creek and other waters by 2004, and for the Potomac by 2007. “We are pleased that we were able to accelerate the process by many years. It is high time that the Anacostia and other District waters began to be treated as the priceless assets they could be, instead of the open sewer they have been allowed to become,” said Robert Boone, President of the Anacostia Watershed Society, one of the plaintiffs in the case. “This settlement will help keep things moving along towards cleanup.”

The settlement was filed in 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, with a request that the Court sign the settlement. Plaintiffs in the case are Kingman Park Civic Association, Friends of the Earth, and Anacostia Watershed Society.

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