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D.C. Lags in Cross-Border Activism on Corps Plan

Thomas P. Jacobus manages the Washington Aqueduct, which wants to build a plant to dry out sediment from the Potomac River.
Thomas P. Jacobus manages the Washington Aqueduct, which wants to build a plant to dry out sediment from the Potomac River. (Hans Ericsson)

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By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 24, 2005

If a federal agency is planning to build something big and industrial in your back yard, it helps to have a senator or two on your side.

Neighborhood activists who live in affluent neighborhoods near the Dalecarlia Reservoir, which straddles the Maryland-District line, are battling to prevent the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from building an 80-foot-high plant to dry out river sediment. The activists call the plant a "sludge factory"; the Corps prefers "dewatering facility."

The Marylanders say their representatives in Congress have gotten the Corps to slow its decision-making process and consider more public input. But in the District, some residents aren't as pleased with their officials.

Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) has discussed the issue twice in meetings with a senior Corps official and coauthored letters on the subject to the Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency. Maryland neighborhood activists say they are satisfied with the response of Sarbanes and other elected officials.

By contrast, District Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton "certainly hasn't paid attention to [the issue] like the Maryland people have," said Ann F. Heuer, a member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D, which represents Upper Northwest neighborhoods near the reservoir.

Julia Hudson, chief of staff for Norton (D), said the delegate "had been looking into the matter" and might ask for a congressional hearing. Like Sarbanes, Norton met this year with Col. Robert J. Davis, who oversees the Corps' Baltimore District, which includes the reservoir.

It escapes no one's notice that the District doesn't have senators or a voting member of Congress. "There is always a disadvantage for D.C. residents when Maryland and Virginia residents can appeal to a number of representatives on Capitol Hill to exert power over issues like this one," said D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson.

"Do I have representation envy? Yes," said another ANC 3D commissioner, Rachel W. Thompson. "Is there anything I can do about it today? No."

Some District activists say they have been slower to organize than their Maryland counterparts, which might account for the perception of a lack of high-level action. But Patterson (D), council member Carol Schwartz (R) and other District officials say they have worked for years with the Washington Aqueduct, the part of the Corps that operates the reservoir, and will continue to do so about the dewatering plant.

In the meantime, Corps officials are advancing a plan that would place the dewatering plant on the District side of the reservoir property, next to Sibley Memorial Hospital. This approach is an alternative to an earlier proposal to build the plant on the Maryland side a few hundred yards from Bethesda's Brookmont neighborhood. Debra Graham, who lives near the reservoir in the Westmoreland Hills neighborhood of Bethesda, said, "It has been a concern [among activists] that the Army Corps has been trying to divide us." She said activists were committed to working together -- across the Maryland-District line -- to oppose the Corps. "We feel that a dewatering facility doesn't belong in a residential area," she said.

The aqueduct's general manager, Thomas P. Jacobus, denies that the Corps has used any red herrings or engaged in a bait-and-switch maneuver. He said the Corps began considering the Sibley site after a neighbor suggested locating the plant on reservoir property with fewer houses nearby than the site near Brookmont.

For decades the Corps has taken water from the Potomac River and filtered it to produce drinking water for the District and parts of Northern Virginia. At the reservoir's filtration buildings and pumping stations along MacArthur Boulevard, the Corps collects the sediment it filters out of the river water, along with aluminum-based chemicals used in the filtration, and pumps the mixture back into the Potomac.

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