Fight to Clean Up the Anacostia River Goes to Court

Pollution caps for river too lenient, violate Clean Water Act


Cat Lazaroff, Earthjustice, 202-667-4500 x 213


Chris Weiss, Friends of the Earth, 202-222-0746

Inadequate limits on pollution flowing into the Anacostia River have prompted environmental advocates to take the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to court.

Earthjustice, representing Friends of the Earth, filed suit today charging that pollution caps approved and issued by EPA are insufficient to clean up the Anacostia. The river is currently so severely polluted that the government warns District of Columbia-area residents of health risks from 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 of Earthjustice. “Congress passed the Clean Water Act with the goal of making every waterway fishable and swimmable. Now, 30 years later, we have a river flowing through the heart of the nation’s capital that still falls drastically short of that goal.”

The Clean Water Act requires EPA to address the continuing pollution 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 the lawsuit filed today, Earthjustice and Friends of the Earth allege that the first two TMDLs established for the Anacostia — one for biochemical oxygen demand and one for total suspended solids — are too weak and allow continued violation of water quality standards.

The TMDLs allow averaging of pollution levels over long periods of time — as much as a year — even though the Clean Water Act clearly 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.

“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 pollution 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.”

Pollution in the Anacostia River is caused largely by the discharge of sewage and stormwater runoff into the river during and shortly 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, resulting in the discharge of raw sewage and stormwater directly into the river. In other parts of the District, separate storm sewers carry polluted stormwater from streets into the Anacostia.

The suit was filed today in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.



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