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Historic Settlement To Reduce Bacteria And Sewage In D.C. Rivers

WASHINGTON D.C. - A milestone legal agreement filed in U. S. District Court for the District of Columbia today is expected to nearly eliminate massive overflows of sewage-contaminated storm water into the waterways of the nation’s capital, specifically the Anacostia River, the Potomac River and Rock Creek, the Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced.

Today’s proposed settlement would resolve a lawsuit by the Justice Department and EPA against the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) and the D.C. government. The District of Columbia and WASA have agreed on a 20-year schedule, with enforceable deadlines, to complete needed controls. By taking this significant step, WASA and the District have demonstrated their commitment to clean rivers and safe sewage disposal.

"The controls contained in today's consent decree will significantly improve the District's waters and protect its citizens for decades to come,” said Thomas L. Sansonetti, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division. “This settlement reflects the federal government's commitment to work with District of Columbia to regulate and control the discharges. This is a good resolution for District residents."

“Sewer overflows are a nationwide problem that have real local impacts,” said Thomas Skinner, EPA acting assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance. “This plan stands out because it brings all the tools to bear on the problem. This is a major victory for the environment.”

Each year, an estimated 3.2 billion gallons of untreated sewage flows into the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and Rock Creek, making these waters unsafe for swimming and fishing. Currently, the annual sewage overflow into D.C. waters is an amount that would fill the U.S. Capitol rotunda and dome every day for 11 months.

During big storms and sudden snow melts, so much runoff water mixes with sewage in the District’s combined sewer system that the flow usually exceeds the capacity of sewers and overflows into creeks and rivers, especially the Anacostia River. In an average rainfall year, District sewers overflow into the Anacostia River over 80 times. Today’s Clean Water Act settlement will virtually eliminate overflows into the river.

Under the settlement, 96 percent of the District’s sewage-laden storm runoff would be captured in three tunnels deep underground for processing later at the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant.

These tunnels are the equivalent of a 10-mile long subway 25 feet wide, capable of holding 193 million gallons of combined sewage and storm runoff. This system will eliminate a major source of fecal coliform bacteria in the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and Rock Creek.

The estimated $1.4 billion sewage control project, which will take 20 years to completely build, will mark the biggest environmental milestone in the district since the Blue Plains treatment plant opened in 1938. Significant sections of the new system will be placed in operation along the way to obtain greater levels of sewage treatment and control even before all work is completed.

Since the mid-1990s, EPA has supported WASA’s development of a long-term control plan to correct the problem. That plan is now included in today’s consent decree. Congress has already appropriated $84 million to control sewer overflows in the District and EPA has provided $7 million in direct support for the development of and stakeholder input into the long-term control plan.

In a companion action today, EPA issued a major modification of WASA’s Clean Water Act permit to require immediate implementation of a long-term sewage reduction plan.

Today’s settlement resolves the sewage control issues remaining after a partial consent decree entered by the federal court on October 10, 2003. That partial consent decree, done in conjunction with the Anacostia Watershed Society, the Kingman Park Civic Association, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, and Mary Stuart Bick Ferguson, required WASA to implement an estimated $140 million in interim sewage overflow controls, including upgrades and repairs to the Blue Plains treatment plant and combined sewers. WASA also agreed to pay $250,000 civil penalty for past permit violations, undertake $1.7 million in storm-water pollution prevention projects and fund a $300,000 "green roof " demonstration project by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.