Arlington cracks down on carwash fundraisers


Taylor Cho, 10, is reflected on a sudsy car during The New Covenant Fellowship Church car wash in Sterling, Va. on June 7. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)

The Boy Scouts from Troop 162 in Arlington wanted to raise money for a week-long canoe trip this summer, so they planned to host two carwashes in a church parking lot.

But before they could break out their sponges, buckets and posters, Scoutmaster Michael Ingles heard about new restrictions on charity carwashes at the county’s schools. He looked into the regulations and found something that surprised him: “The only carwash you can do is your own carwash in front of your house,” he said.

So the Boy Scouts canceled their carwashes, opting instead to dip into reserves from their annual Christmas tree sale to fund their next ad­ven­ture.

In Arlington, the tradition of raising money through a day of soapy water and sweat equity is drying up, thanks to tightened regulations under new state stormwater permits rolling out across the region that could affect the activity elsewhere.

West Coast states that suffer water shortages or have strong environmental lobbies have long focused public education and enforcement efforts on the effects of carwashes. But it’s a newer issue in the Washington area as environmental groups and municipalities aim to cut down on pollution that reaches the Chesapeake Bay.

Limiting polluted runoff is a major focus of cleanup efforts in the bay, said Kim Coble, vice president of environmental protection and restoration for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Carwashes are a small part of the picture, but the impact adds up, she said.

“If it was one carwash, we wouldn’t be having a conversation,” Coble said. “But for every school group in every school in the entire watershed, that is thousands and thousands of carwashes, and it really is considered a problem.”

Virginia and other states use permitting programs to mitigate the pollution flowing with stormwater into streams and rivers. Local governments, and some school districts, outline their plans for limiting pollution in their permit applications, which must be approved by the state.

The stormwater permits recently became more stringent, in response to Chesapeake Bay clean up requirements that affect the surrounding six states and the District of Columbia. Arlington was the first jurisdiction in Virginia to renew its permit under the tougher regulations last summer, and Arlington Public Schools was granted its own permit for the first time this spring.

In the process, Arlington officials decided to crack down on carwash fundraisers. A letter to parents of Arlington middle school and high school students last month announced the ban and explained that the car-cleaning blitzes send a load of pollution toward the bay.

“The chlorinated water, detergents, petroleum products, and other pollutants that get washed into the storm drain system are carried into our local streams, the Potomac River . . . and ultimately, to the Chesapeake Bay,” the letter said.

The decision drew attention outside Arlington and even Virginia. Several conservative Web sites, including that of the Heritage Foundation, have written about the regulations, evoking criticism that it is unfair to crack down on the carwash tradition. At a tea party meeting outside Jackson, Miss., last month, a speaker mentioned the rule as evidence of government overreach.

Cathy Lin, who as energy manager for Arlington schools wrote the letter to parents, said that schools officials view the new permit and the restriction on carwashes as an opportunity for students to learn about environmental protection and sustainability.

In the letter, she highlighted alternative fundraiser ideas that students at Washington-Lee High School are pursuing to replace carwashes, including selling reusable water bottles or working with a commercial carwash that has cleaner wash-water disposal methods.

Arlington’s permit has never officially allowed charity carwashes, said Jason Papacosma, the county’s watershed programs manager. The language in the permit borrows from federal regulations, which specify categories of water that can legally go into the drain system, such as water that’s used in fighting fires and air-conditioning condensation. The list allows individuals to wash personal cars outside their homes, but it has never allowed group carwashes. (Commercial carwashes have a separate permitting process.)

Thomas Faha, the regional director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, said there are many sources of problematic runoff and that it is up to localities to decide what to allow or ban, and how to focus enforcement to prevent pollution.

“At the local level, they have to figure out what is the best approach,” Faha said.

Phil Kavits, a spokesman for Prince William County schools, wrote in an e-mail that under the new permit, “there is stronger language and requirements coming that will discourage/prohibit car washes that discharge into the stormwater system,” but he emphasized that the outcome for the county is still uncertain.

Fairfax County Public Schools — the commonwealth’s largest school district — also is working to understand the impact of the pending regulations, officials said.

But spokesman John Torre said that even under the old regulations, the county has advised “that dirty water from vehicle and equipment cleaning should be contained and not allowed to run into storm drains.”

Throughout the region, it’s still common to see teens with posters along busy roads on sunny weekends and a line of cars waiting to be scrubbed.

New Covenant Fellowship Church in Sterling hosted a combination yard sale and carwash Saturday to raise money to send a couple from their church on an extended mission trip to Mexico.

Pastor Sara Pyon said carwashes are a good way to get the younger members involved. “They see the results of their labor right away, and they have fun doing it,” she said.

Jim Caldwell, the stormwater manager in Howard County, said it’s hard to prohibit charity carwashes, even though they would be considered “illicit discharges” under that county’s permit.

“It’s kind of a mom and apple pie and farm community kind of thing,” he said.

So the government, along with many others, is mainly focused on educating people about cleaner ways to have carwashes, by holding them on a field where the water can be filtered through the soil and by using biodegradable soaps or partnering with a commercial carwash.

Arlington officials also see the carwash ban primarily as an opportunity to educate young people, Papacosma said. Enforcement is not a top priority.

“It’s not like we send out a SWAT team” if teens are spotted on a Saturday washing cars for a cause. Still, he said, there are a range of enforcement options if groups are caught violating the ban, starting with a warning but progressing to a fine of $500 or more for repeated, serious violations.

Regardless, Ingles said, carwashes are now out of the question for his Arlington troop.

“I know there’s not dedicated police looking for carwashes, just like there’s not dedicated police looking for jaywalkers,” he said. “But if there’s something that my Boy Scout troop is doing that’s technically wrong or illegal, we won’t do it.”

Dan Balz contributed to this report.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in the Washington region.
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