Daily Limits on Bacteria to Protect Public Health

polluted-river-warningWashington, DC, like many older east coast cities, has a public health and water pollution problem when rainfall overwhelms its outdated sewer system and causes high volumes of untreated sewage bacteria to be dumped into the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. Animal waste washed from the street and parks into storm drains adds to the problem, which is acute now that record numbers of people are getting on the water to paddle, swim and fish in our rivers. Potomac Riverkeeper has been working to address this serious problem for over ten years, using both advocacy and litigation to compel DC Water and the EPA to reduce sewage pollution and improve water quality. Unfortunately, recent action by EPA threatens to undermine the progress we’ve made, forcing us to take our concerns to court.

This week, our attorneys at Earthjustice submitted a civil complaint to the U.S. District Court for D.C. on behalf of Potomac Riverkeeper Network, the Anacostia Riverkeeper, and the Kingman Park Civic Association. We are suing the EPA for approving “total maximum daily loads” (TMDLs) for E. coli in the Anacostia River, the Potomac River, Rock Creek, and their tributaries that fail to meet D.C.’s water quality standards for protecting public health when people recreate in and on these waterways.

“These pollution caps approved by the EPA do not account for short-term spikes in fecal bacteria concentrations that occur after rainfall,” argues Phillip Musegaas, Legal Director for Potomac Riverkeeper Network. “This violates the District’s water quality standards, and puts people at risk of serious illness.”

All of the water bodies covered by the bacteria TMDLs are designated as Class A, meaning they are intended to be clean enough for primary contact recreation uses like swimming and kayaking. For heavily-used aquatic recreation areas, like the DC area, the EPA recommends that water quality criteria include a second (usually higher) concentration level to address short-term exposures.

“Overlooking daily limits is dangerous,” says Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks. “We need to guarantee the safety of our waters in the D.C. area on a daily basis to protect the health and safety of our river users.”

In fact, fecal bacteria concentrations in local waters violate standards as much as 41 percent of the time in some areas. The data below is based on D.C.’s 2014 water quality report to Congress:

bacteria graph

We are asking the court to declare the EPA’s approval of D.C.’s max loads “unlawful and arbitrary” and direct the federal government to change standards within a year.

Download our complaint

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