WASHINGTON – James Connolly is used to getting blisters from rowing, but not having his fingers get infected and “swell up like a sausage.”
Connolly, the executive director of the Anacostia Watershed Society, blames the infections on sewage that has overflowed into the Anacostia River and its tributaries from Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission pipes.
Wednesday, he joined leaders of three other conservation groups who said they plan to sue the WSSC for violating the Clean Water Act and threatening public health by letting millions of gallons of raw sewage escape into Montgomery and Prince George’s county waterways from January 2001 to this July.
Nancy Stoner, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Clean Water Project, said her group’s analysis of state environmental data indicates that 91 million gallons of raw sewage overflowed from WSSC in that time.
“The residents of Washington and its Maryland suburbs don’t want human waste in our streams and rivers, let alone our basements,” Stoner said. “WSSC has an annual (operating) budget of about $500 million. For that kind of money, we should be finding gold in our rivers, not sewage.”
WSSC spokesman Chuck Brown declined to comment on the lawsuit before it was filed, but said the commission is dedicated to minimizing overflows and keeping the system updated.
“We’re not going to worry about whether they’re going to file a lawsuit or not,” he said. “We’ll just continue to fulfill our mission.”
He said that part of the problem came last fall when Hurricane Isabel knocked out power to WSSC facilities, causing an unprecedented volume of sewage overflow. Brown pointed out that the utility already plans to invest almost $150 million in a sewer reconstruction program.
But the NRDC, the Anacostia Watershed Society, the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Friends of Sligo Creek say WSSC has been too lax. They are demanding that the company replace and repair 50-year-old pipes and better track its system.
Brown said the average pipe is 30 years old.
Connolly, who regularly rows on the Anacostia, said he has seen condoms, feminine hygiene products and other waste in the river after major rains, but he is most worried about the invisible pathogens the sewage brings.
Bailus Walker Jr., professor of environmental and occupational health at the Howard University School of Medicine, said that bacteria, viruses and parasites in sewage-polluted water could cause skin infections and diseases such as dysentery and other gastrointestinal diseases.
Jon Capacasa, director of the water protection division of the Environmental Protection Agency’s mid-Atlantic region, said the EPA has been working with WSSC over the past two years to solve what he called a significant problem. But Capacasa conceded that sewage overflows are widespread and under-reported nationwide.
In December, a Capital News Service analysis of state environmental data found that more than 355 million gallons of sewage overflowed in Maryland between January and October 2003.
Stoner said her group did not plan to file suit against any other water utilities, however, but would focus on the Anacostia River.
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