EPA gives Army Corps green light to dump toxic sludge

Published August 1, 2002

The Army Corps of Engineers should be allowed to continue dumping toxic sludge into the Potomac River, according to an Environmental Protection Agency document, because the sludge encourages fish to flee the area and its resident fishermen.

The discovery of this document by the National Wilderness Institute during research for its ongoing lawsuit against EPA caused an uproar on Capitol Hill during June 19 congressional hearings on the issue.

EPA has come under fire for allowing the Corps to dump 200,000 tons of toxic sludge into the Potomac River every year. The sludge is dumped near spawning grounds for the endangered shortnose sturgeon, allegedly in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and Clean Water Act.

The Corps began dumping the sludge into the C&O Canal National Park and Potomac River in 1989. A permit issued by EPA allowed the toxic discharges from 1989 to 1993. Although the permit was never renewed, the Corps was allowed to continue its dumping operations through this year. A new permit was issued in March 2002.

Evasive maneuvers

According to an unnamed author of the EPA document, “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 document, produced in 1998 and clearly stamped “EPA,” instructs officials on talking points related to the toxic dumping. Specifically, it encourages government officials to focus less on the possibility that dumping is killing fish, and more on assertions that the sturgeon can evade the 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. It’s ludicrous,” said Rep. George Radanovich (R-California), chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Recreation and Public Lands.

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

Raising additional concerns, the document appeared to be authored by the Army Corps of Engineers, which is being regulated by EPA on the matter. “That is even more problematic,” stated Rob Gordon, director of the National Wilderness Institute. “What is the Corps doing offering advice on [EPA] letters going out regarding their activities?”

An EPA spokesperson countered it is not unusual for the agency to give a draft to “various stakeholders involved in the process.”

An “environmental disaster”

On June 18, Radanovich sent a letter to the White House asking the Bush administration to clean up the “environmental disaster” it inherited.

“Some of the same EPA officials who decided not to forbid the dumping are still committed to giving special treatment to this plant. Their intransigence now threatens to link your administration to the indefensible notion that Washington, DC, should be exempt from the environmental laws that are enforced throughout the country,” Radanovich wrote.

“The strength of the ESA is that it gives power and control to government bureaucrats and serves to enlarge the federal estate,” observed Kathleen Benedetto, the National Wilderness Institute’s program director, in a recent interview with Environment & Climate News. “The weakness is that it drives a wedge between people and species, putting both at risk.”

National Wilderness Institute spokespersons expressed confidence they will be successful in their efforts to reverse the Army Corps dumping policy, either through Congress or through the courts.