- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 23, 2001

Virginia's U.S. senators yesterday called for hearings to investigate government-sanctioned sludge-dumping in the Potomac River, which fishermen say has severely reduced fish populations.
"I am just astounded by this problem," said Sen. John W. Warner, who is asking the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works to hold immediate hearings.
Besides calling for hearings, Sen. George F. Allen also is demanding that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers halt the dumpings, which were first reported by The Washington Times.
"This irresponsible activity must immediately cease and desist," said Mr. Allen. Both senators are Republicans.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has allowed the dumping since a 1994 sludge-disposal dispute between Georgetown residents and the Washington Aqueduct, which is run by the Corps.
Residents do not want heavy trucks traveling through area streets hauling the sludge away, so the EPA bowed to political pressure from senators and congressman, and extended an expired permit that also allowed the dumping to continue.
A spokeswoman for the EPA said yesterday the agency is aware of pollution complaints and has held meetings and conducted studies, but said the extended permit cannot be changed until the formal study is completed and reviewed this fall.
"EPA wants to issue new permits that address the concerns and the complaints and the science," said spokeswoman Bonnie Smith.
Another agency official said that the complaints do not mean the water is unsafe, and that the only way to determine its safety is to conduct this study.
Documentation is needed to determine whether the dumps pose environmental risks, but agency officials would not explain why the dumping was allowed to continue for seven years while its safety is, as they say, undetermined.
The EPA is allowing the Corps to discharge chemically treated sediment, including alum, into the Potomac River. The discharges contain 40,000 to 70,000 milligrams of suspended solids per liter, according to documents obtained by The Washington Times.
Comparatively, Virginia discharge permits allow for fewer than 100 milligrams per liter of total suspended solids, according to Bill Hayden, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.
Mr. Hayden said his state's standard is necessary to "make sure aquatic life in the river or stream is not being smothered by alum or whatever the solids may be."
Mr. Warner's is one of five congressional signatures on a March 13, 1995, letter to the EPA to reject the draft proposal of a new permit limiting dumping, pending input from water company customers.
The other signers include Virginia Reps. James P. Moran, Democrat, and Thomas M. Davis III, Republican, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Democrat, and former Sen. Charles S. Robb, Democrat.
Mr. Robb could not be located for comment, Mr. Moran's office offered a "no comment," and Mr. Davis and Miss Norton's office did not return phone calls.
The EPA agreed to reject the permit, and in a April 7 letter to Mr. Warner, assured him the agency would make a "dedicated effort to resolve this issues regarding this permit."
Mr. Warner said yesterday he was not aware of the dumping and said his original request was never intended to condone dumping.
"I can't understand why this was not brought to my attention," Mr. Warner said.
Mr. Warner said he thought the river's health had improved until he read this week's reports in The Washington Times, "and now I learn of this and am utterly shocked that this thing is being done by a government agency that has jurisdiction over clean water nationwide."
In his letter to committee chairman Sen. James M. Jeffords, Vermont independent, Mr. Warner said "this matter has come to my attention and I am shocked by this situation and ask for the earliest possible hearing."
The dumps are targets of a lawsuit by the National Wilderness Institute. The environmental group charges the disposals violate the Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, because the river is inhabited by the short-nose sturgeon. The group filed its notice of intent to sue July 26.
The National Park Service Police are also aware of the dumps, and opened an investigation March 18, 1999, after the spills into the river were spotted coming from a pipe crossing the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park.
"The discharge was described as black, foul smelling, and coming five feet up in the drainage channel," said the park police report. "As the flow subsided, there were dead eels in the channel bed and fisherman in the area observed dead fish in the river."
Area fisherman are blaming the dumps for a steadily decreasing population of fish.
Gordon Leisch, a retired biologist for the Interior Department's office of environmental policy and compliance, has fished in the affected area for 30 years.
Mr. Leisch said fishermen and the Corps had a "gentleman's agreement" not to dump the sludge during spawning seasons but it was broken within one month. The sludge is being dumped directly onto spawning areas and killing the fish eggs, he said.
"It's about time somebody is taking action against the Corps. This problem has existed for years and years, and it only gets worse instead of better," Mr. Leisch said.
Joe Fletcher, owner of Fletcher's Boat House, said the Corps has turned a "deaf ear" to complaints about the declining fish population.
"Fishing is the worst I've seen it in 40 years. They used to dump at certain times but now they pretty much dump all the time. Fishermen have pretty much given up around this area," said Mr. Fletcher, whose family has owned the Boat House for three generations.
The winner of a bass-fishing tournament last week won because he netted two fish — the limit is five, Mr. Fletcher said.
Second place went to a fisherman who managed to catch one fish.


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