Supreme Court Denies Petition Seeking Weaker Pollution Limits for Anacostia River


One of the nation's most polluted rivers will finally see cleaner waters


David Baron, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500

The United States Supreme Court today let stand a lower court ruling requiring limits on the amount of pollution allowed in the Anacostia River each day.  Earthjustice on behalf of Friends of the Earth obtained a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals last year requiring EPA to set the daily pollution caps, and today’s high Court action rejected an attempt by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority to overturn the Court of Appeals’ decision. The Anacostia runs through the heart of our nation’s capital and has been described as one of the dirtiest rivers in the country.

“Today the Supreme Court closed the final chapter in this long saga to require daily pollution caps for one of America’s dirtiest rivers,” said Earthjustice attorney David Baron. “The Anacostia River runs right through the backdoor of Congress, EPA and the White House. This decision will go a long way toward finally cleaning up the river so it will be safe for fishing and swimming once again.”

“For too long, the Anacostia has been abused by pollution, including dangerous levels of sewage and toxic waste,” said Chris Weiss of Friends of the Earth.  “We hope that EPA and the District will now move forward to restore the river’s water quality and beauty. 

Last April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that an EPA-approved plan to limit pollution into the river was contrary to requirements in the Clean Water Act to set “total maximum daily loads” of pollutants. Although the law clearly requires “daily” pollution caps, EPA instead set these caps for certain pollutants as long-term annual and seasonal averages.

The court disagreed with this approach, writing in its opinion that, “‘Daily’ connotes ‘every day’…Doctors making daily rounds would be of little use to their patients if they appeared seasonally or annually. And no one thinks of ‘[g]ive us this day our daily bread’ as a prayer for sustenance on a seasonal or annual basis.”

“The circuit court was very clear in its ruling that EPA’s approach to cleaning up the Anacostia was inadequate under the law,” Baron said.

The petition rejected by the Supreme Court today was brought by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority.  DCWASA is an independent authority of the Washington D.C. government that distributes drinking water and provides wastewater collection and treatment to citizens and businesses in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area.

The Anacostia River runs from Maryland through the District of Columbia and eventually into the Potomac River. Urban runoff and an antiquated sewer system that releases untreated sewage water directly into the river during heavy rainfall events have killed fish and harmed recreational activities in and around the river. Fishing and swimming in the Anacostia are not recommended due to high pollution levels. 

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