Potomac Riverkeeper v. U.S. Department of the Navy

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Fossil Beach on the Potomac River in Westmoreland State Park, Virginia


Watts via Flickr, CC-BY 2.0

Known as the “Nation’s River,” the Potomac serves as home to hundreds of species, including the iconic bald eagle and Atlantic sturgeon, and is an important source of outdoor recreation for millions of visitors every year. 

But for 100 years, the U.S. Navy has used a long stretch of the river (about 50 nautical miles) to conduct a wide range of weapons testing. In doing so, it has launched, detonated, and discharged more than 33 million pounds of toxic munitions—including metals, solvents, and explosives—into the river. These unpermitted discharges from the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division were a direct violation of the Clean Water Act (CWA). In fact, the Navy had never applied for a CWA permit for the pollutants released by its program, even though its legal obligation has been established for more than 40 years.

So in June 2023, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network (PRKN) and NRDC announced a lawsuit against the Navy to fight for our members, local residents, and everyone who works or plays on the Potomac—all of whom have the right to a clean, safe river. 

And on January 10, 2024, the court approved a consent decree directing the department to apply for a permit under the CWA. The permit will ensure that pollution from the Navy’s weapons testing does not violate the water quality standards that were established to protect the river and those who use it. It will also require the Navy to conduct regular water quality monitoring and to report the results publicly.