Former D.C. Department of the Environment Director Christophe Tulou, before his firing last month, had cautioned the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and local officials about a plan pushed by the District’s water utility and backed by Mayor Vincent C. Gray to delay construction of one or more giant underground tunnels aimed at reducing the flow of pollution into the city’s dirty rivers, records show.
Citing a “breach of protocol,” city officials later announced Mr. Tulou’s firing. And while city officials have said little about the firing, D.C. City Administrator Allen Lew told department employees in a gathering just days later about a communication to EPA that “left the impression that the left hand and the right hand weren’t talking to each other.”
But according to documents and interviews, the DDOE’s comments came in response to requests for DDOE’s input on the plan from both the EPA and D.C. Water, the water utility, while three top city officials had received prior notice of the comments.
The chain of events raises additional questions about the “breach of protocol” explanation from city officials about Mr. Tulou’s firing, but sheds light on transparency, timing and technical questions raised by DDOE about a massive and expensive plan to clean up the Potomac and Anacostia rivers and Rock Creek.
At issue was a draft “Green Infrastructure Partnership Agreement” among EPA, D.C. Water and the District, which called for delaying one or more of the deadlines to build tunnels called for in a multibillion-dollar 2005 consent decree to clean the city’s polluted rivers. The draft essentially called for delays while officials tested a “green infrastructure” pilot plan to reduce pollution runoff through a large-scale deployment of rain gardens, porous pavement, “green roofs” and other techniques.
In comments to EPA and D.C. Water, the DDOE under Mr. Tulou, while saying it supported green infrastructure, also cautioned officials that the pilot plan shouldn’t mean putting off work on the tunnels.
“While the DDOE supports the use of green infrastructure, it does not think that this should be used as the sole remedy,” the department wrote, according a copy obtained by The Washington Times. “Through the proper analysis, [green infrastructure] can then be used to perhaps reduce the size or construction costs of the tunnels.”
The DDOE also raised, among other issues, questions about whether the public would be sufficiently informed: “DDOE believes that this agreement is lacking in terms of explaining the process and public participation that will take place should the [consent decree] be amended. D.C. Water should employ a public participation process that actively involves the affected public, including EPA and DDOE, in the decision-making …”
While the nature of the protocol breach remains unclear, officials in the offices of the mayor and city administrator received notice about DDOE’s comments before they were sent, according to interviews and records. In an Aug. 8 email, Mr. Tulou sent a copy of the DDOE’s comments to Mr. Lew; Warren Graves, Mr. Lew’s chief of staff; and Christopher Murphy, Mr. Gray’s chief of staff, according to the records.
“FYI — I’ve attached comments we are sharing with George as requested,” the note began. George Hawkins, a former DDOE director, is general manager at D.C. Water.
Mr. Tulou, who declined to comment, stated in his email that the District “might want to consider better protecting its interests before making this significant commitment.” The next day, according to department sources familiar with the correspondence who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, DDOE sent its comments on the draft to D.C. Water and EPA.
Mr. Lew’s office declined to comment Wednesday. Still, in remarks to department employees days after Mr. Tulou’s firing, Mr. Lew questioned the timing of a DDOE communication with EPA after “the mayor had already signed the letter to EPA.”
Two days before the DDOE issued its comments, Mr. Gray had sent a letter to EPA backing D.C. Water’s plan. While D.C. Water was willing to conduct a pilot plan at its own expense, Mr. Gray wrote, “it would be fiscally irresponsible” to do so while continuing to spend funds for the Potomac and Rock Creek tunnels.
“His relationship with Christophe Tulou was strong and his relationship with (interim DDOE Director) Keith Anderson is strong,” he said, adding that D.C. Water made no secret of its support for the plans outlined in the infrastructure agreement. Mr. Heymann said that two public meetings were attended by DDOE staff and that outreach materials were posted on the utility’s website for months, including support letters from politicians and others.
“The partnership agreement itself does not commit the District or the federal government to specific action,” he said. “If approved by the EPA, the agreement will trigger an even more robust public input process on the proposed changes to the consent decree.”
But not everybody is convinced. Chris Weiss, executive director of the D.C. Environmental Network, said Wednesday while he hadn’t seen DDOE’s comments on the partnership agreement, “it sounds like former Director Tulou was doing his job representing the interests of the District and asking questions.”
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Jim McElhatton is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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