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D.C. Water lobbied for stormwater exemption

- The Washington Times - Monday, July 22, 2013

The District Department of the Environment (DDOE) rolled out new regulations last week aimed at improving stormwater management at large development sites in the District.

But buried in the give-and-take of public notice and comment are signs that D.C. Water, the independent city water utility charged with conducting clean river projects, lobbied for an exemption from the stormwater retention requirements at those sites where they need to manage it most, according to environmental groups that thwarted the effort.

George Hawkins, general manager of D.C. Water and a self-proclaimed champion of clean rivers, argued that the requirements, if implemented, would hamper water quality projects on federal land while delivering insufficient benefit.

Public records and interviews with current and former D.C. officials suggest, however, that Mr. Hawkins' attempt, undertaken in concert with City Administrator Allen Y. Lew, marks yet another attempt by the utility and the city's top officials to undercut DDOE, by law the city's stormwater manager.

The clean rivers initiative is a belated attempt to reverse a decadeslong trend of stormwater runoff that leads to sewage overflow from an age-old combined sewer system. According to the branch chief of DDOE's stormwater management division, the resulting overflow, which goes untreated into the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, has caused levels of pollution four times what specialists consider to be alarming.

D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray has set a goal, branded "Sustainable D.C.," of making 100 percent of District waters fishable and swimmable by 2032, yet there is cause to question his willingness to allow DDOE to do its job.

Mr. Gray's office did not respond to requests for comment.

In 2011, D.C. Water appealed the Environmental Protection Agency's discharge requirements, claiming they were "vague and overbroad," while complaining that its role was not clearly delineated as an independent agency from that of DDOE — an appeal seen at the time as a challenge to the city's stormwater management authority.

More recently, The Washington Times reported on efforts by Mr. Hawkins and Mr. Lew, who answers to the mayor, to negotiate behind DDOE's back a "Green Infrastructure Partnership Agreement" with the EPA that would divert resources away from a tunnel project to capture polluted stormwater for treatment and into an untested system of alternatives such as rain gardens and green rooftops.

In its latest turf battle, D.C. Water, which answers to a board of directors headed by Mr. Lew and which includes DDOE Director Keith Anderson, pressured DDOE to seek a broad exemption from EPA stormwater retention standards on its behalf that environment groups characterized as "irrational," in that it could be applied to projects unrelated to stormwater retention.

"DDOE does not have the authority to offer blanket exemptions from the regulations for projects that are unrelated to increasing stormwater retention capacity in the District," a letter to the EPA from a coalition of environmental groups including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Earth Justice stated. Sources close to the process said the letter — the second of such objections — was necessitated by political pressure on DDOE by Mr. Lew, and that ultimately the city administrator and D.C. Water abandoned their exemption effort.

Mr. Lew did not return calls for comment.

Mr. Anderson, the DDOE director, said the final regulations are a compromise with "our sister agencies," and "a critical step toward meeting Mayor Gray's 'Sustainable D.C.' goal."

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