Lawsuit settled between city, Potomac Riverkeepers

Lawsuit settled between city, Potomac Riverkeepers
Residents enjoying a boat parade on the Potomac River. (Photo/ Potomac Riverkeeper Network )

By Wafer Salih |

The Potomac River is slated for a transformative cleanup. The city of Alexandria unveiled a comprehensive $11.8 million plan on November 1 to eradicate the coal tar contamination present in the River over the next decade. This initiative stems from a settlement with the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, which took the city to federal court for being in violation of the Clean Water Act. 

The settlement provides a comprehensive plan that includes upland remediation enhancements to remove the coal tar from the soil and groundwater, pipe upgrades to the storm sewer to keep coal tar contamination from migrating down into the river, sediment testing to see if more remediation is needed and the Mussel Project where the city plans to add 20,000 freshwater mussels into the river to naturally purify it. 

Nancy Stoner, the president of the PRKN, heralded the settlement as a historic win for the people of Alexandria. 

“We commend the city for agreeing to take the necessary corrective action to halt and clean up this pollution, which has been harming the Potomac River for decades,” Stoner said in a release issued by the PRKN. 

“This is a win for the Potomac River, the residents of Alexandria and for everyone who relies on the river for drinking water and recreation.” 

Deputy City Manager Emily Baker provided background on what exactly took place between the city and the Riverkeeper Network. 

“The city has been negotiating with the Potomac Riverkeeper for some time, and we just entered into an agreement that was filed [November 1], a settlement, for the city’s remediation of the remnants of the coal tar contamination that occurred as part of the operation of the Alexandria Town Gas Manufacturing Plant over 100 years ago,” Baker said. 

The Alexandria Town Gas Plant, which was in operation from 1851 to 1946, is said to be the source of the coal tar contamination that exists in the river today. 

Andrew Macdonald, founder of the Environmental Council of Alexandria and former vice mayor of Alexandria, believes the contamination is due in part to a poor cleanup job that took place in the 1970s when new housing was built around North Lee and Oronoco Streets under the supervision of Dayton L. Cook, the Transportation and Environmental Services Director at the time. 

“We wouldn’t be having the problem today if the plant had been cleaned up properly, so the assumption is that [Cook] was certainly the person that should have made sure that the cleanup was done properly. You wouldn’t be having the stuff still leaking into the river all these years later if the soil had been cleaned up,” Macdonald said. 

Macdonald raised concerns that the coal tar was allowed to fester and drip into the river between the plant’s closing and the cleanup that took place afterwards, emphasizing that there may have been a window of more than 30 years to clean the area. 

“If the plant closed in 1940, what was going on between [the] 1940s and 1970s?” Macdonald asked. “I don’t know, but you had an opportunity there to clean it up, and the chemicals themselves are incredibly toxic.” 

Coal tar contamination and the dangers it poses are not to be underestimated. Macdonald, who is a geologist, broke down the many toxic chemicals at play and the potential harm they can bring to aquatic life and the broader ecosystem, including the risks to human health.

The Potomac River, glimmering with a sheen of oil on its surface. (Photo/ Potomac Riverkeeper Network)

“There’s all sorts of toxic chemicals. Polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and chemicals I can’t even remember. Some of which get into the groundwater; some of them dissolve easily; some don’t dissolve easily,” Macdonald said. “Some can be absorbed into aquatic life and result in harming the different types of fish and other creatures in the Potomac. Obviously, you don’t want to be drinking the stuff and you don’t want to be breathing it.” 

Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said he came across the coal tar contamination in 2015 while doing an investigation of Alexandria’s combined sewer system. 

“We were on the wrong side of the pier, and we found this outfall [where] there was all this oil coming out. And I was like – what is going on here?” Naujoks said. “It is absolutely illegal for any stormwater pipe to be discharging oil. If you see a sheen there, it’s called an illicit discharge. There’s no permit that you can get anywhere in the country for discharging oil into a public waterway.” 

Naujoks said the toxins in the water released a petroleum-like odor into the air. 

“Any neighbor will tell you: you could smell petroleum,” Naujoks said. “Especially when it’s low tide, when those sediments were exposed to the open air, all those volatile organic compounds, all these naphthalene and coal tar [chemicals] would all of a sudden be in the air. People could smell it, it was nasty.” 

Throughout the next few years, the Riverkeeper Network went back and forth with the city multiple times, urging them to eliminate the source of the oil instead of implementing band-aid measures. 

“The bigger issue for us was they had no real plan to stop the source of contamination. The oil that was just charging out the pipe sometimes daily,” Naujoks said. “Even if you dredge this – they did dredge it by the way, I think it costs $3 million to dredge the contaminated sediments – you’re going to recontaminate this site if you don’t actually eliminate the source.” 

Macdonald echoed a similar sentiment on why it’s important to clear up the contamination at its source. 

“Part of the problem with all of this [are the questions] ‘Where is the source of the contamination?’ And ‘Are we really cleaning up?’” Macdonald said. “Are they going to just continue to pump and treat and try to keep it from getting into the river, which is certainly a good thing to do. But the question is, ‘Have they really addressed where the source of the pollution is and can they get at it and clean that up?’ Because that’s really the only way, unless it’s spread now.” 

Frustrated with the lack of significant progress, the Potomac Riverkeeper Network filed a lawsuit suing the city in 2022. 

“For [six] years, we tried to avoid filing a lawsuit to be perfectly blunt. We really tried to work with the city from 2016 all the way till 2022. And in January of 2022, we sent a letter to the mayor telling him, if you don’t come up with a real plan, we’re going to move forward with our lawsuit,” Naujoks said. 

Baker maintains that the city had already been well underway with these initiatives and that they would be fixing the pollution now even without pressure from the Riverkeeper Network. 

“Even though [this consent decree] hasn’t actually gone into effect yet, we’ve already started implementing the work that’s in there, because we’re committed to doing it, and we would be committed to doing it even without the lawsuit from the Potomac Riverkeeper,” Baker said. 

Naujoks, however, saw the situation in a different light. 

“The city said in 2016, they wanted to work with us to develop a solution. And here it was six years later in 2022, there was no solution in place,” Naujoks said. “I’ve never waited that long to sue a polluter ever. I’ve been doing this for 22 years. I will never wait that long again ever.” 

Macdonald said he’s thankful for the Riverkeeper’s efforts and is hopeful for the future of the river. 

“Hopefully [this lawsuit] will lead to a more proper cleanup of this site,” Macdonald said. “I think it’s long overdue and I hope that it leads to some real meaningful reduction in the pollution and assuming that can be done easily without actually going and removing soil and sediment up from the river. 

A key component for the city’s plan to fix the contamination in the river is the Mussel Project. Baker explained what the project entails. 

“We have committed to providing funds of $300,000 to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources to fund a project to introduce over 20,000 freshwater mussels to the Potomac River, which they will serve as cleaning out. They remove nutrients and pollutants from the water,” Baker said. 

Naujoks says that instead of paying a mandated fine to the Department of Treasury for environmental violations, the city will instead reinvest that money into the Mussel project. 

“The city would have been required to pay a fine to the Department of Treasury, and we asked that that money go back into the Potomac River,” Naujoks said. “Alexandria agreed to reinvest $300,000 of mussels back into the Potomac River rather than pay a fine or penalty to the Department of Treasury.” 

In adhering to the new plan, the city aims to address past failures and ensure the Potomac’s viability for future generations. The Mussel Project is expected to start in early 2024, with the other programs to begin implementation shortly after.