Trash and debris collect along the shores of the Anacostia River near Nationals… (Linda Davidson/The Washington…)
For environmental activists who fight to clean the District’s dirty waterways, there was no sweeter victory than the one they witnessed in 2004.
That year, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority was forced to settle a federal lawsuit that claimed it failed for decades to stop its Civil War-vintage sewers from spewing pollution. D.C. Water agreed to build three huge tunnels within 20 years to stop pipes from overflowing during hard rains, sending billions of gallons of storm water mixed with raw sewage into Rock Creek and the Potomac and Anacostia rivers every year.
“Maybe . . . before I pass away, I can see children swimming in there,” Robert Boone, the former president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, said shortly after the settlement was reached.
But now, the three-tunnel solution is in doubt, and activists, engineers and bureaucrats are arguing once again about the best path to cleaner waters. Although digging is underway for the first tunnel, D.C. Water wants to put the other two on hold and instead see whether rain gardens, retention ponds and grass rooftops can soak up as much storm-water runoff as the pipes can store.
D.C. Water has asked the Environmental Protection Agency for permission to build an experimental “green infrastructure” project and run tests for at least eight years.
The green project would be built where the second and third tunnels were slated to run, along Rock Creek Parkway near the Kennedy Center to protect the Potomac River and in Upper Northwest neighborhoods to protect Rock Creek. A 13-mile tunnel under the Anacostia River and deep into the Northeast near a Home Depot off Rhode Island Avenue, currently under construction, would continue as planned.
The EPA is considering D.C. Water’s proposed “partnership agreement,” and a decision on whether to move forward with public hearings on the changes is expected soon.
Among local environmental activist groups, a verdict on the request is already clear: Don’t do it. Some are enraged; others have expressed dismay about the proposal.
“We’re well down the road to the tunnel solution, and I’m a little ambivalent about changing course midstream,” said Brent Bolin, a spokesman for the Anacostia Watershed Society.
Opponents say that if the green pilot project wins approval, billions of gallons of sewage would pour into the Potomac and Rock Creek for eight years while D.C. Water conducts its tests.
The proposed agreement played a major role in the recent firing of the head of the D.C. Department of the Environment (DDOE), Christophe Tulou. He said he believed the green infrastructure project had no hope of performing as well as the utility claimed, and he allowed experts in his department to say as much in comments on the project submitted to the EPA.
In a recent interview at his home, Tulou, now unemployed, said his department “had no beef about green infrastructure. But there are still issues one has to resolve . . . how effective is green infrastructure in mitigating storm-water runoff. We don’t know exactly.”
But others who support Tulou were more harsh in their criticism, saying green infrastructure is a stall tactic, an attempt to delay a portion of the $2.6 billion cost of the Clean Rivers tunnel project.
“From our perspective, this proposal is purely about delays . . . that is the purpose behind it,” said Jennifer C. Chavez, a staff attorney for Earthjustice, a nonprofit legal organization that represented several groups in a lawsuit against the utility in 2000.
D.C. Water’s general manager, George Hawkins, has said the “green” project is superior to the “gray” pipes because it would cool and beautify the city if tests are successful and the program is allowed to expand.
Hawkins convinced Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) of the project’s worthiness early last year. Gray sent two letters of support to EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson in March and July, without consulting experts in his office for their opinions on whether it would work.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) initially favored green infrastructure, but not at the expense of the two tunnels in the original agreement. When Mendelson learned that D.C. Water and city officials were negotiating a partnership agreement, he also wrote a letter to the EPA administrator, withdrawing his support for the green project.
Green infrastructure should be included with all three tunnels or be left out altogether, Mendelson wrote. To clean the water, the District needs what D.C. water originally agreed in court to build, not a hybrid of a tunnel for the Anacostia watershed and something else for Rock Creek and the Potomac.