Groups Will Monitor Agency Action Against WSSC to Ensure Area Residents Are Protected

WASHINGTON, D.C. (November 18, 2004) -- Today's Environmental Protection Agency lawsuit against the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) for violating the Clean Water Act was welcomed by an alliance of conservation groups that threatened a similar suit two months ago. On September 22, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and three other groups -- the Anacostia Watershed Society, the Audubon Naturalist Society and Friends of Sligo Creek -- announced their intent to sue WSSC for illegally allowing sewer overflows, polluting the Anacostia River and its tributaries, and endangering public health.

The EPA's action prevents the conservation groups from filing their own lawsuit, but they have the option to intervene in the federal suit on behalf of their members. The Department of Justice, which is representing the EPA, told NRDC it planned to file the suit in federal district court in Baltimore by the end of today.

"We are pleased that our threat to sue WSSC finally prompted the EPA to do its job to stop the sewer authority from allowing raw sewage to contaminate our streams, streets, and parks," said Nancy Stoner, director of NRDC's Clean Water Project. "We will be watching closely to make sure that the government is truly serious about pursuing this case, that the problem is fixed, and that public health is protected." NRDC and the other conservation groups want WSSC to overhaul its sewer collection and pipeline system and establish procedures to monitor and prevent overflows.

According to WSSC's own reports to Maryland's Department of the Environment, from January 2001 through July of this year, WSSC's sewer system experienced 445 overflows that dumped more than 90 million gallons of raw sewage into streams and rivers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Discharges of raw sewage are illegal under the Clean Water Act.

WSSC's system includes approximately 640 pipe stream crossings and hundreds of miles of sewer pipes that run alongside Maryland rivers and streams. The sewer pipes are more than 50 years old, and many are broken, decaying and exposed. The Anacostia Watershed Society, which has been documenting WSSC sewer system problems for several years, estimates that there are hundreds of miles of broken and separated pipeline that may be leaking sewage into the water table in Maryland.

Exposure to sewage is a significant threat to public health. "The public is at risk for contracting such waterborne illnesses as gastroenteritis, which includes vomiting and diarrhea, and hepatitis," said Stoner. Boaters on the Anacostia River in Maryland have contracted skin infections on their hands and bodies after coming into contact with the water. And when sewers back up, local homeowners wind up with basements filled with sewage, which is a threat to their health.