- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 27, 2002

A Virginia-based conservation group has filed a federal lawsuit aimed at stopping the Army Corps of Engineers from dumping chemically treated sludge into the Potomac River.
The National Wilderness Institute filed the citizens lawsuit against the Corps when it became apparent that the Environmental Protection Agency was "reluctant" to enforce the laws, said NWI officials.
"It is situations like this that are precisely the reason why the Clean Water Act allows for citizens to file suit," said Jim Streeter, policy director for NWI.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District, is asking that the Corps be forced to comply with the Clean Water Act and the District's water-quality standards, he said.
In a separate suit still pending in federal court, NWI is asking that the government be required to enforce the Endangered Species Act as well. One of the areas where the Corps is dumping sludge is near a spawning site of the federally protected short-nosed sturgeon.
"The two suits could be joined," Mr. Streeter said, "but a decision on the first suit could come at any time."
Rep. George P. Radanovich, California Republican, applauded the lawsuit.
"The National Wilderness Institute has truly taken the lead as watchdog with regard to the federal government polluting the Potomac River and an endangered-species spawning ground," Mr. Radanovich said.
He said he and several of his colleagues cannot understand how the EPA would allow the sludge to continue to run free in the river when it is not permitted anywhere else on the East Coast.
"Despite congressional hearings and pleas for the dumping to stop, the EPA is in the process of issuing a new permit for the Corps to discharge sludge into the river," he said.
The dumping was first reported almost three years ago in The Washington Times, which has done a series of stories since then on the Army Corps' practice of flushing thousands of tons of chemically treated sludge into the river from three sites, including the Washington Aqueduct.
The EPA planned to restrict the discharges in 1995. But residents of Northern Virginia, who receive their drinking water from the aqueduct, did not want to pay $65 million for a new water-treatment facility.
And residents of the District's affluent Palisades neighborhood in Northwest condemned the idea of dump trucks loaded with barrels of the sludge driving through their section of the city.
The Times also reported in August 2001 that Sens. George Allen and John W. Warner, Virginia Republicans, called for an investigation into the dumping.
But to date, only congressional hearings have taken place, according to NWI officials.
The NWI, founded in 1989 by two college students, says its primary mission is to promote conservation and wise management of natural resources across the country but the group also has been highly critical of what it calls uneven enforcement of federal environmental laws. The group says the EPA unfairly focuses its enforcement efforts on the West while turning a blind eye to politically powerful East Coast polluters.
Mr. Streeter said the institute has obtained documents from the Corps saying the sludge being dumped contains a number of metals harmful to fish and other wildlife.
A preliminary analysis of the sludge, conducted earlier this month by a private laboratory and requested by Mr. Radanovich, showed high levels of arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, copper, zinc, nickel and selenium.
But NWI learned the sludge may also contain chlorine, which is a taboo, according to the District's clean-water standards.
"They periodically flush out their sediment tanks with gallons of chlorinated water," he said, though they lack a discharge permit.
He said the Army Corps did not test for chlorine concentrations prior to NWI inquiries.
The District's Department of Health sent a letter to the Corps requesting that it study the chlorine levels when this was discovered. But no further action has been taken under the administration of D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams.
Last year, the Maryland Department of the Environment initiated its review of several discharges in Little Falls Branch, which runs through the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park.
Maryland's investigation showed the discharges violated state laws, and it cited numerous other problems at the Washington Aqueduct.
Mr. Radanovich said it is time for the courts to weigh in on the issue and force the government to cease further pollution of the Potomac.
Several calls to the EPA and the D.C. Department of Health were not returned in time for this report.

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