Groups Fight For Stronger Cleanup Standards for Anacostia and Potomac Rivers

Cleanup undermined by inadequate pollution caps, illegal loopholes


Raviya Ismail, Earthjustice, (202) 667-4500 

Environmental advocates are filing two separate lawsuits today to challenge inadequate pollution caps that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved for the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, the two rivers that run through the nation’s capitol.

The public interest law firm Earthjustice is filing the lawsuits on behalf of Friends of the Earth, Anacostia Riverkeeper, and Potomac Riverkeeper, arguing that EPA approved pollution caps for sediment, bacteria, metals, and other pollutants in the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers that fail to meet Clean Water Act requirements. 

More than 5 billion gallons of stormwater drain into the Anacostia River each year, carrying with it the trash, silt, and chemical residue from the river’s 176-square mile watershed. Similarly, the Potomac River contains unlawfully high levels of fecal coliform, bacteria, metals, sediment and trash as a result of clean water permit violations, sewer overflows, and uncontrolled stormwater. 

Weak pollution limits approved by the EPA will fail to correct this problem, the groups contend.

“Our goal is to protect the health of residents in our nation’s capitol,” said Earthjustice attorney Katie Renshaw. “There are serious health hazards from the pollutants being dumped. Several of these unlawful limits address bacteria which come from human and animal waste and can lead to a variety of sicknesses. So it is imperative for the health of our community that we keep our rivers free from these wastes.”

“We are working to restore the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers so that people can safely swim in the rivers and enjoy their bounty year-round. Before we can achieve that goal, we need strong pollution limits,” added Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Chavez.

The pollution limits being challenged today were approved by EPA after a successful lawsuit that compelled EPA to adopt long-overdue pollution limits for all impaired waters in the District of Columbia. In 2006, the groups again won a court ruling in which EPA was ordered to issue daily limits as required by the Clean Water Act, instead of annual or seasonal limits. The court chided the agency in its decision, writing: “Doctors making daily rounds would be of little use to their patients if they appeared seasonally or annually. And no one thinks of ‘give us this day our daily bread’ as a prayer for sustenance on a seasonal or annual basis.”

The first lawsuit contends that EPA must revise each of the remaining pollution limits that limit only average annual or seasonal pollution loads, a number of which are designated under District law as high priority pollutants. Despite the court’s 2006 ruling requiring daily limits, EPA has allowed 15 existing limits that run afoul of the court’s ruling to remain on the books in D.C., hindering progress toward pollution reductions in both the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. 

According to Potomac Riverkeeper Ed Merrifield, overlooking the daily limits is dangerous. “Until we can guarantee the safety of our waters in the D.C. area on a daily basis, we cannot guarantee the safety of the people who interact with it,” he said.

The second lawsuit challenges EPA’s approval of limits on discharges of sediment and suspended solids into the Anacostia. Though the agency correctly required daily limits for these pollutants, it approved an approach that will allow more than half of the 7,000-ton annual limit to be dumped into the river during a single day’s heavy rainfall. These limits fail to address a major source of the river’s degradation: the approximately 40,000 tons of silt dumped into the Anacostia each year, clogging the eight-mile river and choking the life from its waters.

“This 4,300-ton loophole completely skirts the law’s requirement for daily pollution caps. It is a cynical approach and signals that the federal government has given up on a healthy future for the Anacostia River,” said Anacostia Riverkeeper Dottie Yunger. 

“After big rainstorms, the river will be an eyesore,” added Chris Weiss, Director of the D.C. Environmental Network at Friends of the Earth. “These lax sediment limits will undermine our cleanup efforts.”

The groups also object to EPA’s failure to allocate pollution limits to individual sources of sediment pollution, which they say is required by EPA regulations and a necessary step in implementing a cleanup plan.

Read the lawsuit challenging the 15 existing limits obstructing clean-up of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers (PDF)

Read the Anacostia River lawsuit (PDF)

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