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Historic settlement to reduce bacteria and sewage in D.C. rivers, would store sewer overflows underground for treatment later

Release Date: 12/16/2004
Contact Information: Roy Seneca (215) 814-5567

Contact: Roy Seneca (215) 814-5567
WASHINGTON D.C. – A milestone legal agreement filed in U. S. District Court here will set a new clean-water standard for American cities by nearly eliminating massive sewage overflows into the waterways of our nation’s capital when it rains.

The agreement creates a final plan to store rainwater and raw sewage from the district’s combined sewer system in10 miles of holding tunnels deep underground.

At a total cost exceeding $1.5 billion, the project represents the largest injunctive relief ever granted for sewage overflows, and makes Washington D.C. a model for overflow controls.

Thomas L. Sansonetti, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, commented: "The controls contained in today's consent decree will significantly improve the district's waters and protect its citizens for decades to come. 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.”

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

Among the tools used are budgets setting the total maximum daily pollution loads permitted in rivers, a new discharge permit for the district, an enforceable compliance schedule, and municipal assistance.

The proposed settlement would resolve a lawsuit by the U. S. Department of Justice and Environmental Protection Agency against the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority (WASA) and the D.C. government. It places DC WASA on a 20-year enforceable schedule to complete needed controls.

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. In an average rainfall year, district sewers overflow into the Anacostia River 82 times. Today’s Clean Water Act settlement would eliminate those overflows except during the largest storms.

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 nearly eliminate a major source of fecal coliform bacteria in the Anacostia and Potomac rivers and Rock Creek.

The $1.5 billion sewage control project, which will take 20 years to completely build, marks 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 so greater levels of sewage treatment and control will occur in the meantime.

Today’s settlement will cost $1.4 billion for long-term controls. Add to that $140 million in interim upgrades to sewers and the Blue Plains treatment plant and the total value of the pollution controls rises to $1.5 billion.

WASA also has agreed to pay a $250,000 civil penalty for past permit violations, to undertake $1.7 million in storm water pollution prevention projects, and to fund a $300,000 “green roof “ demonstration project by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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 overflow reduction plan.

Since the mid-1990s, EPA has supported WASA’s development of the long-term control plan included in today’s consent decree. EPA has provided more than $7 million in direct support to develop and foster stakeholder input into the plan, and Congress has already appropriated $84 million to control sewer overflows in the district.

The proposed consent decree announced today is subject to a 30-day public notice and comment period, and final court approval.