Bass Times: Potomac sewage facility seeks reduction in limits

WASHINGTON — The Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant in Washington, D.C., is the largest facility of its kind in the world. Sprawling across 150 acres of Potomac River shoreline, Blue Plains discharges more than 300 million gallons of treated wastewater daily into one of the most productive bass fisheries in the nation.

 In 2007, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), which owns Blue Plains, acceded to demands from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to dramatically reduce the amount of nitrogen contamination in its discharge over the next seven years.

 Excessive nitrogen levels can significantly degrade water quality and harm numerous aquatic species, including black bass. The Blue Plains facility currently releases about 8.5 million pounds of nitrogen each year into the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. The WASA agreed to cut the Blue Plains annual nitrogen output to 4.7 million pounds by 2014.

 But in August, the WASA unexpectedly petitioned a federal court in Washington to set aside the nitrogen limits. National and regional conservation groups were incensed by the action. "WASA's suit threatens to delay the cleanup of the Potomac River and the [Chesapeake] Bay," said Earthjustice attorney Jennifer Chavez.

 The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Friends of the Earth and the Sierra Club have also asked the court not to allow the WASA to renege on its promised nitrogen pollution reductions.

The Blue Plains plant serves more than 2 million customers in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Many of the ratepayers have low incomes. WASA recently announced an 8.5 percent rate increase and warned that additional rate hikes would be necessary to help fund a $3.1 billion capital improvement program. The program is needed to meet the lower nitrogen emission targets on schedule. But the lion's share of the spending, more than $2 billion, will be used to curb massive combined sewer overflows (CSOs) from WASA's antiquated network of wastewater collection pipes.

Combined sewer systems (CSSs) are based on a design that originated during the Civil War era. A single network of pipes collects both raw sewage and contaminated storm water. CSSs are notoriously prone to overflows after heavy rain events. In Washington, D.C., alone, CSOs are responsible for more than 3 billion gallons of untreated wastewater entering the Potomac River each year. The WASA is subject to a court order, initiated by the EPA, which requires CSOs to be reduced by at least 25 percent over the next several years.

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