Court Filings Call for Stronger Limits to Control Pollution into Anacostia River

EPA failed to protect community, environment from pollutants in national waterway


Jared Saylor/Howard Fox, Earthjustice (202) 667-4500


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

Earthjustice, representing Friends of the Earth, yesterday filed a brief in a court challenge to the Environmental Protection Agency’s weak approach to limiting pollution into the Anacostia River in the District of Columbia. The groups are calling for stronger pollution caps that are necessary to protect the environmental and recreational value of the river for the benefit of local residents and visitors.

The groups filed the brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, in an appeal from a November 2004 decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“The Anacostia River is so severely polluted that District residents are routinely warned by EPA to avoid fishing or swimming in it,” said Earthjustice attorney Howard Fox. “The Clean Water Act was enacted over 30 years ago to protect our waterways from harmful pollution. Three decades later, the Anacostia remains a heavily polluted waterway running through the heart of our capital.”

The Clean Water Act requires EPA to approve or establish “total maximum daily loads” (TMDLs) for each relevant pollutant in a given waterway. These pollutant loads must be set at a level that cleans up the river so it meets water quality standards. Earthjustice and Friends of the Earth allege that EPA’s approved TMDLs for biochemical oxygen demand and total suspended solids allow continued violations of water quality standards.

“EPA has fallen short of protecting water quality for the Anacostia River,” said Friends of the Earth President Brent Blackwelder. “The residents of Washington DC are being robbed of the opportunity to fully enjoy this beautiful river. The continued pollution of this jewel is an absolute shame.”

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 directly into the Anacostia.

EPA approved pollutant loads that average pollution levels over a long period of time — as much as a year — even though the Clean Water Act clearly requires that TMDLs be set as “daily” loads. 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.

“There is so much potential for this river to become a clean, beautiful waterway that can be enjoyed by all,” Fox added. “EPA needs to fulfill its responsibility to protect this river for those of us who live here and for future generations to come.”

The case is Friends of the Earth v. EPA, D.C. Cir. 05-5015. A copy of the brief is available here.


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