Potomac Riverkeepers propose settlement

Potomac Riverkeepers propose settlement
Debris and pilings extend into the Potomac River at the former industrial site on Oronoco Bay that is the focal point of a lawsuit Potomac River Keepers Network has brought against the City of Alexandria.

By Olivia Anderson │ oanderson@alextimes.com

The Potomac Riverkeepers Network, an environmental nonprofit organization that aims to protect the Potomac River, sent the City of Alexandria a settlement proposal last week after filing a lawsuit last month, PRKN member Dean Naujoks said.

According to PRKN, the settlement proposal is the most recent chapter in a continued effort to reach an agreement with the city despite years of conflict over pollution flowing from Alexandria into the Potomac River.

“We’re still willing to work with them,” Naujoks told the Times in an interview. “We didn’t want it to come to this.”

The proposal comes after PRKN filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city for allegedly allowing toxic coal tar and creosote wastes to contaminate the Potomac River since at least 1975.

According to the lawsuit, the river waste comes from a stormwater outfall subject to a Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Permit that bans non-stormwater discharges from the storm sewer system. The group claims that through these discharges the city is actively violating the permit, the Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

“Many of these pollutants are classified as probable human carcinogens,” PRKN Vice President for Programs and Litigation Phillip Musegaas said in a news release. “Documents prepared on behalf of the city acknowledge that concentrations detected near the outfall site are a potential danger to the marine and aquatic organisms and the animals that feed on them.”

PRKN is one of three regional waterkeeper branches, in addition to the Upper Potomac Riverkeeper and the Shenandoah Riverkeeper.

The nonprofit’s aim is to preserve the public’s right to clean water in those areas and to “enhance the safety of our drinking water, protect healthy river habitats, and enhance public use and enjoyment,” according to their website.

The site in question is a now defunct gasification plant near Oronoco Street in Old Town on which the city relied for power from the late 1800s to mid 1900s. Formerly called Alexandria Town Gas, the site underwent redevelopment in the 1970s that included the implementation of a new stormwater pipe. The first reports of that pipe scooping up toxic chemicals from the gas plant and releasing them into the Potomac River occurred in 1975.

Former Vice Mayor Andrew Macdonald, who served on City Council between 2003 and 2007, recalled that the city’s combined sewer overflow project, RiverRenew, shaped much of his experience on the dais. The unfunded state mandate required the city to replace parts of its outdated sewer system to prevent sewage from flowing into the Potomac River during rainstorms.

According to the city’s website, the RiverRenew plan would eventually call for construction of an underground tunnel system designed “to bring combined sewage to the AlexRenew wastewater treatment facility, thus significantly reducing both the number and volume of combined sewer discharges into city waterways.”

Macdonald said the gas plant leak was one of the main issues that spurred him to run for council.

“I could see that the Oronoco gas plant leak had not been cleaned up properly yet,”

Macdonald said. “I tried to push the city to address both issues – obviously, though, that was not enough to get them to address these problems quickly enough. I should have done more, obviously.”

Following pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency to address the ongoing issues, the city entered into a voluntary remediation program with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality in 2000.

According to VDEQ’s website, the VRP program encourages hazardous substance cleanups “that might not otherwise take place.” The program offers an opportunity for site owners to address contamination issues on a voluntary basis with VDEQ’s supervision.

“By overseeing the process, DEQ is able to ensure that the cleanup achieves a satisfactory level of human health and environmental protection,” the website reads.

The process includes submitting a request for eligibility determination, enrollment, submittal requirement of a voluntary remediation report, remediation goals, public participation and finally a certification of satisfactory completion of remediation.

However, Naujoks said the remediation efforts were to no avail, so PRKN first approached Alexandria about the issue in 2016 to enact more concrete solutions.

The city seemed amenable to the requests as long as the two parties could keep it private, Naujoks said, but there was little change and the small progress that did happen was “too slow, too limited, and has failed to stop the imminent and substantial danger.”

Over the years, Naujoks said the city has spent millions of dollars to address the issue, but the problem has persisted.

“We didn’t want to have to file a lawsuit and we were willing to work with them privately, but after a while it got to the point where we felt like we had no other choice,” Naujoks told the Times.

In a statement originally sent to the Washington Post and separately sent to the Alexandria Times, the city said it was “surprised” by PRKN’s lawsuit.

“Alexandria has worked closely with both the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the PRKN on the City’s efforts to remediate the remnants of contamination that occurred at this site,” the statement reads.

Thomas Faha, VDEQ regional director for the North Regional Office, declined to comment on the lawsuit while litigation is ongoing – a standard practice for the agency – but reiterated that VDEQ and Alexandria are still involved in the volunteer remediation program.

According to Andrea Blackford, editorial communications manager for the City of Alexandria, the city “has implemented the approved remedial measures in accordance with the approved schedules.”

Macdonald, meanwhile, said the lawsuit was “necessary” because the city has been ineffective in its minimal effort to mitigate pollution. He criticized the volunteer remediation program for its lack of tangible results and called for more transparency between the City of Alexandria and residents who live here.

“Voluntary is clearly not adequate because the problem still exists. The city needs to provide more information to the public about what it is doing, has done and the success or failure to date …” Macdonald said. “… I think we need this lawsuit to make it clear to the city that more needs to be done to eliminate this toxic legacy of our turn of the last century waterfront.”

According to the city’s website, it installed floating booms to absorb contamination in 2000 and in 2018 it dredged polluted sediment and replaced it with clean sand.

But overall, Macdonald asserted that the issue of environmental preservation in general is often tossed by the wayside in the city and should be prioritized more.

“Unfortunately, the city’s approach has long been to focus much less on environmental preservation and more on what developers wish to see happen,” Macdonald said. “… I would have liked them to recognize that the waterfront and river are not just development, and that the Potomac is a valuable natural resource and open space.”