Potomac Electric Power Co. has agreed to pay a $1.6 million penalty and pledged to take steps to reduce toxic contamination of the Anacostia River via storm runoff from a company service center in the District of Columbia, federal officials have announced.
The U.S. Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency gained those commitments and more in a consent decree negotiated with the Washington-area utility, which was filed late last week with the federal district court for the District. If finalized, the 72-page agreement would settle a 2015 federal lawsuit alleging that runoff drained from the Pepco site violated the Clean Water Act because it contained excessive levels of metals, including copper, zinc, iron and nickel, and total suspended solids.
The 77-acre tract had been the site of a power plant, which Pepco shut down in 2012 and demolished. The site remains in use, though, as a storage yard for old transformers and as a training complex.
The company is already participating in an ongoing study and cleanup of soil and other contamination of the property under another consent decree with the District Department of Energy and Environment. But federal officials contended that runoff piped from the site has continued to carry toxic contaminants into the Anacostia, a tributary of the Potomac River that is impaired by organic chemicals, heavy metals and sediment.
“This agreement will aid the continuing recovery of the Anacostia River by cleaning up contaminated stormwater from this Pepco facility,” said Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden, who noted that he has personally kayaked the river.
The deal drew praise from Anacostia Riverkeeper Emily Franc, whose group had initially threatened to sue Pepco over the toxic discharges before the federal government stepped in. The court later allowed her group to intervene in the lawsuit and participate in the settlement talks.
Franc called the consent decree “a big win for the river and for the community,” which she said also gets the Anacostia “that much closer" to being swimmable and fishable.
Pepco did not acknowledge any wrongdoing in the agreement, but company spokesman Marcus Beal called the consent decree “a positive development for the company and its customers.” The company has already invested more than $2 million over the past four years to install runoff mitigation measures at the site, Beal said. He asserted that the most recent stormwater sampling results show full compliance with permit limits.
“They are making progress,” Franc said, as levels of most pollutants have been reduced. But she said copper concentrations have remained a problem in the stormwater discharge from an outfall that drains most of the site.
According to information in the company’s 2009 discharge permit, Franc said, the average flow of water from that one outfall was 6 million gallons a day.
“It’s a continuing source of contamination,” she said, and one that has kept adding to the legacy contamination buried in the river’s sediment from decades’ of past pollution by this and other industrial operations that have since ceased.
Under the consent decree, Pepco promises to take additional steps to reduce the amount of metals being washed into the site’s drainage system, and to install a system to treat the runoff in the pipes before it gets discharged into the river. The company also commits to closing another outfall, eliminating any discharge from it.
The company pledged to start work on the treatment system for the main outfall by June 15, and to have it operational by the end of the year. It also agreed by June 2018 to put in a “bio infiltration basin,” wetland plantings or some similar green stormwater control to treat runoff from the other outfall, which would then be closed.
Franc said she was generally pleased with the terms of the settlement, but concerned about Pepco’s ability to fulfill it. She said the company has declined to share the budget for the work it’s pledged to do.
“I think … their intention is good,” she said. “Whether they put all the (needed) money and effort into it remains to be seen.”
The company did further agree to pay stipulated penalties for further violations, plus a flat sum of $500,000 if it fails to put the stormwater mitigation project into operation.
“Pepco is committed to meeting or exceeding its environmental responsibilities,” Beal said, “and the investments made at the Benning Service Center will support that commitment.”
The court will take public comment on the proposed consent decree for 30 days before deciding whether to accept it.