Committee holds oversight hearing on water treatment sludge in Potomac

June 20, 2002
The House Resources Committee held an oversight hearing on the Army Corps of Engineer's dumping of water treatment sludge into the Potomac River.

Washington, D.C., June 20, 2002 -- The House Resources Committee held an oversight hearing on the Army Corps of Engineer's dumping of nearly 200,000 tons of water treatment sludge into the Potomac River each year.

At the meeting, held in Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Congressman James V. Hansen said the Corps' practice was in violation of both the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act.

Lawmakers at the meeting said federal agencies were not enforcing laws to protect the endangered shortnose sturgeon, which scientists discovered six years ago in the river 55 miles down river from a discharge point of a water treatment plant.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Army Corps officials have said that no studies have proven that the sediment harms the fish, which was previously thought to be extinct in the area.

"For years, the Army Corps of Engineers has treated the Potomac River like a cemetery for toxic metals and chemicals, dumping 200,000 tons of hazardous sludge from its shores every year," commented Parks Subcommittee Chairman George Radanovich, who led most of the meeting.

"These offensive discharges from the Washington Aqueduct flow into an American Heritage River, in a National Park, and onto an endangered species spawning ground. And, despite the fact that this practice is in blatant, indisputable violation of both the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, the Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of re-issuing the Corps' permit to dump.

"The fact that EPA would even consider such a permit is appalling. This practice is not done, nor would it be tolerated, in any other part of the country. It most certainly should not be acceptable in the nation's capitol. This sludge fouls the river, fouls the shores, and fouls the spawning ground for the endangered shortnose sturgeon. I will call on these administration witnesses to do the right thing and clean up this inherited environmental disaster."

The Army Corps of Engineers runs the Washington Aqueduct that includes the Dalecarlia and Georgetown water treatment facilities, both located in the District of Columbia (DC). In treating the water, chemical disinfectants like aluminum sulfate are added to bind with suspended solids in the water.

The solids are allowed to settle out as sludge in four sedimentation basins at Dalecarlia and two basins at the Georgetown Reservoir. After the sludge accumulates, the Corps currently discharges excess sludge from these basins into the Potomac at outfalls above Chainbridge and below Fletcher's Boathouse.

The sludge discharges occur approximately 20 times annually and are conducted primarily at night in order to escape public detection as the discharges discolor the water and produce large quantities of unsightly foam. The sludge contains chloramine, a compound highly toxic to fish, as well as an annual 20 million tons of alum, according to Hansen.

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