Better late than never

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Better late than never
The Potomac River, glimmering with a sheen of oil on its surface. (Photo/ Potomac Riverkeeper Network)
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A cleanup of toxic material that takes place 80 years later is better than no cleanup at all. But it does beg the question: “What have you been doing these four score years?” 

For those not familiar with the issue, a settlement between the city of Alexandria and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network over a lawsuit filed by PRN was announced on November 1. The site in question is the old Alexandria Town Gas Manufacturing Plant at the intersection of North Lee and Oronoco streets. 

The plant at the edge of the Potomac River fueled Alexandria with natural gas produced from coal for 95 years, but left the site inundated with coal tar residue when it closed in 1946. Not surprisingly, over the years this highly toxic residue made its way into the Potomac River. For more information on the issue, see the Times page 1 story, “Lawsuit settled between city, Potomac Riverkeepers.” 

What’s astonishing is that it took a lawsuit from the PRN filed in 2022 to nudge Alexandria, a proud holder of the “Eco-City” designation, into action. 

And for those new to the topic of waste from Alexandria polluting the Potomac River, this is not the first time the PRN has helped prod the city of Alexandria into faster action. In the mid-2010s, Alexandria was also dragging its feet over swift remediation of the city’s four sewer outfalls, which during heavy rain events discharge raw sewage into the Potomac River. 

Alexandria’s leaders were slow-walking plans for the costly remediation when the PRN began raising the alarm on the need for swift action on the outfalls. 

For a year prior to April 2017, when Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a bill into law requiring Alexandria’s sewer system to be fixed by 2025, PRN had pushed Alexandria’s leaders – both privately and in public statements and opeds – to move faster. Go to alextimes.com and search under “outfalls” for many pages of stories, editorials and letters on this topic. 

Expedited action was forced upon Alexandria when Republican state legislators, whose downstream districts were suffering from our city’s pollution, generated a bill to force Alexandria to a tighter timeline for remediation. The bill passed with bipartisan support from environmentalists in both parties before McAuliffe signed it into law. 

So, given that history, why did Alexandria dither for six years – according to PRK member Dean Naujoks – from the time PRK first raised this issue with city leaders in 2016 until the organization filed a lawsuit in 2022? 

We don’t doubt Deputy City Manager Emily Baker’s assertion that Alexandria was moving ahead with planning to deal with the problem when PRK filed its lawsuit. But we also don’t doubt that, as with the outfalls issue, the city’s timeline for action was significantly longer than the situation required. 

As with many issues, we sometimes fall into a false sense of security that severe pollution is something that happens elsewhere. We think of oceans filled with plastic and skies in China filled with fumes from polluting factories. 

It’s startling to realize that a city as environmentally conscious as Alexandria has a significant pollution problem. 

Yes, it’s a situation inherited from past polluters and long-ago city officials who were remiss in cleaning up these messes from the city’s industrial past. And, yes, the city’s budget is under pressure on many fronts. 

But the first function of government at any level is protection. Cleaning up Alexandria’s toxic messes, now not later, is a vital component of protecting those who live and visit here 

A cleanup of toxic material that takes place 80 years later is better than no cleanup at all. But it does beg the question: “What have you been doing these four score years?” 

For those not familiar with the issue, a settlement between the city of Alexandria and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network over a lawsuit filed by PRN was announced on November 1. The site in question is the old Alexandria Town Gas Manufacturing Plant at the intersection of North Lee and Oronoco streets. 

The plant at the edge of the Potomac River fueled Alexandria with natural gas produced from coal for 95 years, but left the site inundated with coal tar residue when it closed in 1946. Not surprisingly, over the years this highly toxic residue made its way into the Potomac River. For more information on the issue, see the Times page 1 story, “Lawsuit settled between city, Potomac Riverkeepers.” 

What’s astonishing is that it took a lawsuit from the PRN filed in 2022 to nudge Alexandria, a proud holder of the “Eco-City” designation, into action. 

And for those new to the topic of waste from Alexandria polluting the Potomac River, this is not the first time the PRN has helped prod the city of Alexandria into faster action. In the mid-2010s, Alexandria was also dragging its feet over swift remediation of the city’s four sewer outfalls, which during heavy rain events discharge raw sewage into the Potomac River. 

Alexandria’s leaders were slow-walking plans for the costly remediation when the PRN began raising the alarm on the need for swift action on the outfalls. 

For a year prior to April 2017, when Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed a bill into law requiring Alexandria’s sewer system to be fixed by 2025, PRN had pushed Alexandria’s leaders – both privately and in public statements and opeds – to move faster. 

Expedited action was forced upon Alexandria when Republican state legislators, whose downstream districts were suffering from our city’s pollution, generated a bill to force Alexandria to a tighter timeline for remediation. The bill passed with bipartisan support from environmentalists in both parties before McAuliffe signed it into law. 

So, given that history, why did Alexandria dither for six years – according to PRK member Dean Naujoks – from the time PRK first raised this issue with city leaders in 2016 until the organization filed a lawsuit in 2022? 

We don’t doubt Deputy City Manager Emily Baker’s assertion that Alexandria was moving ahead with planning to deal with the problem when PRK filed its lawsuit. But we also don’t doubt that, as with the outfalls issue, the city’s timeline for action was significantly longer than the situation required. 

As with many issues, we sometimes fall into a false sense of security that severe pollution is something that happens elsewhere. We think of oceans filled with plastic and skies in China filled with fumes from polluting factories. 

It’s startling to realize that a city as environmentally conscious as Alexandria has a significant pollution problem. 

Yes, it’s a situation inherited from past polluters and long-ago city officials who were remiss in cleaning up these messes from the city’s industrial past. And, yes, the city’s budget is under pressure on many fronts. 

But the first function of government at any level is protection. Cleaning up Alexandria’s toxic messes, now not later, is a vital component of protecting those who live and visit here.

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