Washington, DC — The District of Columbia’s new plan for preventing combined sewage overflows into the Potomac avoids taking steps needed to cure the problem, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, millions of gallons of sewage and dirty storm water will continue to be discharged into the Potomac River and Rock Creek, exposing District residents to harmful microbial pathogens, such as fecal coliform, E. coli, enterococci, giardia, and shigella.
The D.C. sewage system is one of the oldest in the U.S. Every time it rains, combined storm water and sewage foul the Potomac and its local tributaries, the Anacostia River and Rock Creek. In 2001, environmentalists sued D.C. and won a consent decree requiring construction of three massive tunnels and a system of diversion sewers to capture storm water to prevent sewage overflows. As the time to begin paying the full $2.6 billion cost approached, the City balked.
Instead, D.C. has proposed to conduct a “Green Infrastructure Demonstration” over the next eight years in lieu of building two (the Potomac and Rock Creek) of the three tunnels with only the Anacostia River Tunnel moving forward. Today ends the public comment period on the District’s proposed modifications.
“Green infrastructure, such as permeable sidewalks, rain gardens and green roofs, is laudable but will provide nowhere near the pollution relief of the tunnels,” stated PEER Executive Director jeff Ruch, noting that buried in a plan appendix, D.C. admits that it cannot meet EPA mandated pollution limits for the Potomac and Chesapeake. “Green infrastructure should supplement not substitute for the tunnels.”
In its comments, PEER points out that the plan presented by D.C. Water –
- Lacks any analysis of the public health effects associated with deferring additional tunnels even though the delayed reductions affect some of D.C.’s most heavily used aquatic recreation areas;
- Does not even specify who will maintain the green infrastructure, from what source of funds or how its effectiveness will be measured;
- Has yet to develop a plan to equitably and affordably finance needed improvements or to mitigate and spread out potential water rate increases, especially for more vulnerable residents.
In 2012, the head of the District’s own Department of the Environment (DDOE), Christophe Tulou voiced some of these same concerns when asked for an assessment by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Mid-Atlantic Regional Office. Although Director Toulou had copied his chain-of-command on his analysis, Mayor Vincent Gray summarily fired Toulou and his deputy. His press office then issued a statement explaining that the Mayor felt “upstaged” by anything less than uncritical support.
“It is telling that the District’s own environmental agency had no role in preparing this plan purporting to tackle the City’s major source of water pollution.” Ruch added. “This plan represents a form of public corruption that puts the health of District residents at risk.”