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Mendelson, environmentalists say WASA’s sewer solution falls short

(Published July 30, 2001)

By CHRIS SMITH

Staff Writer

City Councilman Phil Mendelson and a coalition of civic, health and environmental groups are urging the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority to revise its $1 billion plan for lessening raw sewage discharges into the District’s waterways, calling on WASA instead to completely stop the unhealthful pollution.

"Any solution that recommends the continued dumping of over 200 million gallons per year of sewage mixed with storm water is a blight to the city," Mendelson said. "We can do better. After decades of continued dumping of billions of gallons per year of sewage mixed with polluted storm water, it is time to say ‘no more.’"

Despite Mendelson’s criticism during a recent press conference, the at-large Democratic councilman also applauded WASA for beginning the long overdue repair of a system that no longer protects the health of District residents.

The current draft of WASA’s Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Long Term Control Plan "severely curtails" CSO discharges, but does not eliminate them completely, said Libby Lawson, WASA director of public affairs.

"In an urban environment it is impossible to have zero CSO in any body of water," she said. "The number one goal of WASA is to look at a plan to improve water quality standards. This has to be achieved on a watershed basis."

Lawson said WASA’s "watershed basis" plan will cut CSOs significantly – 95 percent in the Anacostia, 85 percent in the Potomac and 78 percent in Rock Creek – while costing $1 billion instead of the projected $4 billion it would take to completely stop CSOs.

Ultimately, Lawson said, District residents need to make the decisions of what they pay for, including clean water.

"We need to hear people who live in D.C.," she said. "The public needs to be educated on how they can do their part to keep the waterways clean."

WASA will make itself available to the public for questions and feedback through a series of ward meetings in August informing people about the proposed draft plan. The meetings will lead up to a citywide public hearing, which will start at 6 p.m. Sept. 11 at Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.

The ward meetings will take place at the following locations and times:

•Ward 5: Aug. 1, 6 p.m. at Kellogg Convention Center at Gallaudet University.

•Ward 1: Aug. 7, 6 p.m. at the Mount Pleasant Library.

•Ward 6: Aug. 9, 6 p.m. at the Southeast Library.

•Ward 6: Aug. 15, 6 p.m. at the Anacostia Library.

•Ward 4: Aug. 15, 6 p.m. at the Shepherd Park Library.

•Ward 2: Aug. 22, 6 p.m. at the Georgetown Library.

•Ward 3: Aug. 23, 6 p.m. at the Washington Highlands Library.

•Ward 8: Aug. 28, 6 p.m. at the Tenley-Friendship Library.

•Ward 7: Aug. 29, 6 p.m. at the Capitol View Library.

The proposed plan calls for constructing three immense subterranean tunnels under the District to store combined sewage and storm water when it rains.

However, this plan would take almost 20 years to complete with near-term improvements within two to three years, according to WASA’s draft plan.

The coalition argues that other cities, such as Atlanta, have implemented similar plans in seven years.

Lawson said the comparison is unfair considering WASA officials examined CSO control programs similar to its proposed plan already implemented in Boston, San Francisco and Chicago – not Atlanta.

"We will work with EPA to speed up the plan’s approval process," Lawson said. "We have a valid concern about how long it will take to build the watersheds, but we can’t build tunnels overnight."

WASA also expects financial support from the federal government, which helped fund the projects in the three cities WASA examined and built the existing system in the District, Lawson said.

However, members of the coalition said they do not believe WASA’s plan is adequate.

"The city’s plan to clean up sewage stinks," said Nancy Stoner, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

WASA’s plan would still dump 260 million gallons of raw sewage into the District’s waterways every year, she said.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator