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WASA dumping sewage into rivers, groups charge

(Published February 28, 2000)


Staff Writer

The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority is allowing billions of gallons of untreated sewage to flow into the Anacostia and Potomac rivers every year in violation of federal and District laws, according to charges included in a federal lawsuit filed by city residents and environmentalists.

And they further charge WASA’s failure to properly mark the 59 points on D.C. waterways – including Rock Creek – at which sewage overflows occur further contributes to a serious public health hazard.

The suit asks the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to order that WASA "immediately take such action as may be necessary…to prevent or minimize threats to public health and the environment" caused by the discharges.

"Blue Plains (wastewater treatment plant) is working fairly well, but when it rains half an inch or more, most of the sewage never gets to Blue Plains," said James Connolly, executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society, one of the groups suing WASA.

"Rain doubles the volume of material in the pipes, so it overflows – toilet paper, condoms, tampons all floating down the Anacostia River," he said.

The lawsuit includes tables showing that levels of fecal coliform – a pathogen harmful to human and aquatic health – have been routinely measured in the Anacostia at hundreds of times, and sometimes thousands of times, higher than acceptable limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Kingman Park Civic Association, representing D.C. residents who live on the northwestern shore of the Anacostia, joined the Anacostia Watershed Society in filing the suit Feb. 2 along with the American Canoe Association, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and Oxon Hill, Md., resident Mary Stuart Bick-Ferguson.

Kingman Park, a neighborhood commonly referred to as "Stadium-Armory," includes an overflow pipe south of the Whitney Young Memorial Bridge and D.C. General Hospital which residents and environmentalists say is the major source of raw sewage flowing into the Anacostia. Both swimming and fishing are banned in the Anacostia River by the city’s health department.

"We understand that this is a problem of enormous magnitude that can’t get fixed right away, but it needs to be fixed," Connolly said. "There’s been a lot of foot-dragging, finger-pointing and studying, but no action."

David Evans, a Richmond, Va., attorney representing WASA, called the lawsuit "counterproductive to resolving the problem," which he said is still being actively discussed by all parties to the lawsuit. He blamed the lack of legally required warning signs at sewage overflow pipes on WASA being "caught between two federal agencies" – the Environmental Protection Agency, which requires the postings, and the National Park Service, which he said "steadfastly refuses" to allow WASA to post the required signs.

"WASA and these groups have the same goal – we want to get this problem fixed as quickly as possible – but WASA can’t snap its fingers and fix an infrastructure problem. It’s a huge problem," Evans acknowledged.

Both sides in the dispute agree that the problem – which is exacerbated when rainwater increases the flow of water and sewage comingled in the city’s sewers – dates to the 18th-century creation of the District’s combination sanitary and storm sewer system. One possible long-term solution to the problem, which would involve totally separating the sanitary and storm sewers, could cost more than $2 billion by some estimates. Another possible solution being discussed involves building underground storage tanks to hold overflow sewage until it can be treated at the Blue Plains plant.

But Connolly said interim actions by WASA – such as better maintenance of the existing sewer pipes – could minimize health and environmental hazards while long-term solutions are sought. The groups charge that some sewer pipes are so clogged with sediment that water and sewage cannot get through them to reach Blue Plains for treatment.

In addition to sewage overflows that occurred during rainfall, the federal lawsuit charges that sewage overflows have occurred at 12 points along the Anacostia and Potomac rivers during dry weather since 1997 when Blue Plains has not been operating at full treatment capacity. The data in the lawsuit, derived from quarterly reports WASA is required to file with the EPA, show two points at which the dry weather sewage overflows have been a continual problem during at least the past three years – Outfall Pipe No. 7 on the Anacostia at 13th Street and Ridge Place SE and Outfall Pipe No. 27 on the Potomac at Water Street NW.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator