As overflows continue, D.C. plan for sewage tunnels getting messy

Turf battles, firings occur over best way to control flow into city waterways

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Neither the Gray administration nor D.C. Water would say who drafted those letters or the green partnership agreement.

In an Aug. 12 letter to Mr. Garvin, environmental groups accused D.C. Water of negotiating a backroom deal with the EPA, and said the 60-day comment period after the proposal is unveiled may not be sufficient. They also question whether Hawkins‘ plan can meet the consent decree’s deadlines, and point out that both the Stormwater Management Act and the 2005 consent decree required them to have undertaken that review by now.

Rebecca Hammer of the Natural Resources Defense Council says Mr. Hawkins‘ plan is vague, that the city does not have enough land to build green infrastructure on the necessary scale, and that it is underestimating the maintenance such systems will require.

“How do you do it on private property?” she asked.

Mr. Hawkins and Mr. Lew say the maintenance will create jobs. Mr. Hawkins also insists he has found public land in less developed parts of the city that are contributing to toxic runoff into Rock Creek.

But talk of cost is fuzzy. While there exists a notion that green is less expensive than gray infrastructure, Adam Krantz, managing director of government affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, says this is a misconception. “The idea that green is a cheaper approach is not true,” he said.

Mr. Hawkins agreed that the city will be “spending like crazy on these [green] projects,” and noted that monthly water bills have gone up by $7 since the tunnel project began. “But we believe we will get more bang for the buck,” he said.

Speaking for Mr. Hawkins, the mayor’s chief of staff added: “We owe it to the rate payers and, frankly, the environment itself to get more data about the effectiveness and cost of what some have called ‘green solutions.’ It’s a question about effectiveness and whether one approach has more ancillary benefits.”

So who will pay for D.C. Water’s green pilot project, and any further tunnel plans going forward? The EPA draft agreement states that decision points for the project will weigh “the extent to which District departments will commit to revising capital expenditure plans to prioritize [green infrastructure] retrofits in priority areas” — suggesting costs could shift from D.C. Water to District agencies.

Mr. Hawkins brushed aside such concerns, but confirmed the agreement will be part of the proposed modified consent decree to be approved by EPA and a federal judge. Of the possibility that DDOE and other agencies such as the District Departments of Transportation and Public Works end up paying for his projects while having limited input, he said: “Not if the parties are working well together. I’m not going to be political about it, but I’ll explain to any mayor or city administrator why it’s important. If anything, the costs will be to D.C. Water and not the other way around.”

DDOE’s recently appointed director Keith Anderson, who is up for confirmation as D.C. Water’s newest board member, said he has not spoken with Mr. Lew — both chairman of that board and, as city administrator, Mr. Anderson’s putative boss — or Mr. Hawkins about the role his agency will play. Yet he bristled at the suggestion he could soon be taking orders from Mr. Hawkins. “I’m never going to be working for George Hawkins,” Mr. Anderson said. “I regulate D.C. Water, and I work for the mayor.”

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