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EIP Sues WSSC Water Supplier for Discharging over 30 Million Pounds of Pollutants into the Potomac River during the Last 4 Years

February 12, 2014

EIP, on behalf of its client, the Potomac Riverkeeper, has joined Chesapeake Bay Foundation in filing a Complaint against WSSC in the United States District Court for the District of Maryland for chronic and substantial discharge of sediments and aluminum into two of the nation’s and region’s most cherished waterways -- the Potomac River and ultimately, the Chesapeake Bay -- from its Potomac Water Filtration Plant (PWFP).

The Complaint addresses years of unchecked water pollution stemming from the operation of the water supply plant, which provides drinking water to most of Montgomery and parts of Prince George’s Counties. The Complaint alleges, among other claims, that the plant has discharged and continues to discharge millions of pounds of sediments and aluminum directly into the river instead of treating these wastes, as the long-expired permit requires, and disposing of the remaining wastestream off-site. Specifically, from September 2009 through December 2013, WSSC dumped approximately 30 million more pounds of sediments (formally known as total suspended solids or TSS) into the Potomac than was present in the water it withdrew from the river for filtration. In addition, WSSC discharged approximately 1.5 million pounds of aluminum during the same time period.

WSSC’s plant, located near Seneca, Maryland, has been operating under a 5-year permit, issued in 1997, that expired nearly 12 years ago but has been administratively extended by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). Available information indicates that the PWFP’s solids treatment unit, which became operational in 2002 and was intended to prevent significant discharges of sediment and aluminum, simply doesn’t work. More than a decade after the permit expired and the solids treatment unit went online, WSSC and MDE still have not arrived at a fix, prolonging the harm to the river and Bay, including harm to aquatic plant and animal life.

Excess sediments not only muddy the water, they smother fragile fish eggs, rob the water of vital oxygen, reduce the amount of sunlight needed for healthy aquatic plant growth, and threaten the benthic community. Benthic organisms such as oysters, clams, snails, and crabs feed on decaying matter in the sediments, and in turn, are a crucial source of food for fish and other higher organisms in the food web. Significant amounts of aluminum in the discharge can have adverse impacts on fish population and benthic communities, depending on other water quality factors such as pH and hardness. Although aluminum is a metal known to stress fish and amphibian populations, the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) has allowed WSSC to discharge aluminum in amounts well above EPA’s National Recommended Water Quality Criteria for more than a decade.

As required under the Clean Water Act, a 60-day notice of intent letter (NOI) was filed prior to the filing of the Complaint. The purpose of the NOI requirement is to give the alleged violator an opportunity to resolve the violations and come into compliance. Unfortunately, no meaningful discussions toward resolution of the violations occurred between the parties during the 60-day timeframe. Today’s lawsuit will ensure that WSSC no longer ignores the design and operational problems that have caused this long-standing pollution. WSSC’s customers, and the resource upon which WSSC relies, the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay, deserve better.

For the press release, click here.

For the NOI, click here.

For the Complaint, click here.