Federal government allows pollution dumping into Potomac River

Published January 1, 2001

WASHINGTON, DC—On October 11, 2000 the National Wilderness Institute (NWI) announced its intention to file a lawsuit charging that several federal agencies are violating the Endangered Species Act (ESA) through their improper operation of the Washington Aqueduct.

NWI delivered notices of intent to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (“Corps”), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

The Washington Aqueduct is used to divert and treat water from the Potomac River for use in Washington, DC and parts of northern Virginia.

According to the NWI charges, federal government agencies are allowing the illegal dumping of tons of sediment laced with aluminum sulfate (alum) from the reservoirs in Georgetown back into the Potomac River near Little Falls. This dumping threatens several endangered species, among them the shortnose sturgeon. Alum and other effluent from water treatment plants combine to prevent fish eggs from hatching while destroying underwater plants crucial to fish habitat.

“The agencies that allow this dumping to continue avert their gaze with regard to its effects on endangered species,” said Rob Gordon, executive director of NWI.

“How many more tons of sediment and chemicals toxic to protected fish and their eggs will be flushed into the waters of the nation’s capital before federal officials realize that Washington, DC should live by the same rules and regulations that apply ‘outside the Beltway’?”

Government documents reveal that other options that would safely dispose of contaminated sediment were dismissed from the outset. “If EPA is obligated to comply with the ESA, why is EPA extending permits that allow the Corps to continue poisoning the river?” Gordon asked. “Under the provisions of the ESA, what the Corps is doing is clearly illegal because it harms endangered species. Anywhere else in the country the government would aggressively step in to halt such a practice—but apparently not in its own backyard,” Gordon said.

The illegal operation of the Washington Aqueduct underscores the administration’s pattern of giving special treatment to projects considered important to the Washington area, NWI asserts. Those projects include the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Construction Project, where demolition and construction will cause harm to several endangered species—a problem exposed by NWI and several concerned federal lawmakers in a news conference in early October.

“The Washington Aqueduct and the Wilson Bridge Project serve as prime examples of how the federal government continues to selectively enforce the Endangered Species Act. Washington is trying to have it both ways,” Gordon said.

For more information

Visit the NWI Web site at www.nwi.org, or call David Liddle at 202/296-0263.