EPA Cracks down on Army Corps Toxic Sludge

Published February 1, 2003

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed to force the Army Corps of Engineers to all but eliminate its long-standing practice of dumping toxic sludge in the Potomac River. The decision, announced December 18, reverses EPA’s acquiescence to the Corps’ “midnight dumping” practices in the nation’s capital.

Army Corps vs. Municipalities

For more than a decade, EPA has allowed the Army Corps to dump more than 10 million tons of sludge into the Potomac River every year. The sludge is dumped into the C&O Canal National Park and other Potomac River sites near spawning grounds for the endangered shortnose sturgeon. The practice appears to be a clear violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Clean Water Act.

The Army Corps began dumping the sludge pursuant to an EPA permit issued in 1989. The permit allowed the dumping from 1989 to 1993. Although nine years passed before the permit was renewed, the Corps was allowed to continue its dumping operations through March 2002, when a new permit was issued.

The sludge emanates from the Washington Aqueduct, which treats and supplies water to residents of Washington, DC and Northern Virginia. Although municipalities are usually restricted to dumping 30 milligrams of sludge per liter of suspended solids, the Corps has been dumping up to 240,000 milligrams per liter of solids. By holding the Corps to the same standards that apply to the rest of the nation, EPA is proposing more than a 99 percent reduction in the Corps’ maximum sludge dumping.

“I am quite pleased that EPA is prepared to issue a mea culpa and take steps to end such an indefensible practice,” said Representative George Radanovich (R-California). “As if the blatant Clean Water Act violation weren’t enough, the Corps dumps this toxic sludge through a national park and directly into the primary spawning ground of the endangered short-nosed sturgeon.”

“EPA’s announcement is a confession that this midnight sludge dumping in the nation’s capital violates the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts,” said Rob Gordon, president of the National Wilderness Institute. “The new draft permit is a good first step, but the devil will be in the details, and serious questions remain, including why they had to be compelled to stop something they knew was illegal.”

Toxic Sludge Good for Fish?

The Army Corps had originally justified its polluting of endangered sturgeon spawning waters by claiming toxic sludge benefitted the fish. According to a memo submitted to EPA, the Corps claimed dumping toxic sludge forced the fish to flee an area that was occasionally used by fishermen. Were it not for the toxic sludge, argued the Corps, the fish might fall prey to fishermen.

Stated the author of the Corps memo, “It is not in my view a ridiculous possibility that our discharge actually protects the fish in that they are not inclined to bite (and get eaten by humans), but they go ahead with their upstream movement and egg laying.”

The memo instructs Corps officials on talking points related to the toxic dumping. Specifically, it encourages government officials to focus less on the concerns that dumping kills fish and more on assertions that the sturgeon can evade the toxic sludge on their way to spawning grounds.

“To suggest that toxic sludge is good for fish because it prevents them from being caught by man is like suggesting that we club baby seals to death to prevent them from being eaten by sharks,” responded Radanovich. “It’s ludicrous.”

“This is one of the most frightening examples of bureaucratic ineptitude and backward logic I have ever seen,” he remarked.