The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission faces a possible lawsuit by environmental groups alleging that a water filtration plant near Seneca is polluting the Potomac River in violation of the Clean Water Act.
The Environmental Integrity Project, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and Potomac Riverkeeper announced their intention to sue the WSSC after a 60-day waiting period, unless WSSC agrees to work with them toward finding a solution.
Potomac Riverkeeper is an organization dedicated to protecting the quality of water in the Potomac River watershed.
The Potomac Water Filtration Plant, which provides water for much of Montgomery County and parts of Prince George’s County, has been discharging millions of pounds of sediments and aluminum into the Potomac rather than treating the water and disposing of what remains at an off-site facility, according to a release from the groups Wednesday.
The plant, which discharges about 8 million gallons of wastewater into the Potomac every day, has been operating without a permit from the Maryland Department of the Environment since its permit expired in 2002, according to the statement.
The plant draws untreated water that contains sediments such as dirt and algae from the river and purifies it to provide clean drinking water to the public, WSSC said in an email Thursday.
Many of the sediments plus coagulating agents are hauled away from the plant on trucks, and the rest are put back into the river, the statement said.
“Notably, WSSC believes that these discharges during normal operations and high volume rain events comply with WSSC’s existing permit issued by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE),” according to the statement.
The notice of intent also alleges that malfunctioning equipment at the plant has allowed even more sediments to be released into the river than get taken in.
An Army Corps of Engineers facility near MacArthur Road has expanded its sediment basins to prevent polluting the river, according to the statement.
The law allows a permit to remain in effect as long as it is periodically extended administratively, said Mary Greene, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project.
According to WSSC’s statement, “An application for the renewal of our permit with MDE is currently pending, and we look forward to continuing our dialogue with MDE about the terms and conditions of a renewed permit.”
On many days, the plant has been discharging “vast amounts” of sediments and aluminum back into the river, Greene said.
The amount of sediments and aluminum released threaten fish and aquatic life and impair the quality and health of the Chesapeake, Green said.
A lawsuit would allege violations of the Clean Water Act, violations of the permit limits and discharging loads on days they’re not permitted to discharge, said Christine Tramontana, an attorney for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The complaint, which originated in a check of public records by the Environmental Integrity Project, doesn’t provide the full story of communications between WSSC and the Department of the Environment, Tramontana said.
One of the goals of the 60-day period is to better understand the process from WSSC’s perspective, she said.
Matt Logan, president of Potomac Riverkeeper, said he’s hopeful WSSC will share their concerns and come up with a solution quickly.