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.
In 2003, the EPA said the Corps could no longer flush the material into the Potomac for environmental reasons and gave the agency until the end of 2009 to devise another means of disposal. In May, the Corps released a study of alternatives by an engineering consultant.
One of them -- to build a plant to dry out the sediment and dispose of the resulting "cake" in a new landfill on the Maryland side of the Dalecarlia property -- was particularly alarming to many of the reservoir's Maryland neighbors. Residents in the Brookmont and Westmoreland Hills neighborhoods organized efforts to block the Corps from building a plant or a landfill.
As a neighborhood protest, the effort mounted by Dalecarlia's neighbors has been high-powered. By the end of last year, Sarbanes, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) had together written letters to the Corps and the EPA urging them to allow more time for public input, a request the agencies granted.
All of the neighborhoods most immediately affected by a proposed plant have wealthy residents. The median sale price for a home in the 20816 Zip code, which includes Brookmont and Westmoreland Hills, was $720,000 last year; in the 20016 Zip code, which includes the District neighborhoods of Palisades and Spring Valley, the median home price was $775,000, according to a Washington Post analysis of government sales figures.
The neighborhood groups have proposed alternatives to the Corps' ideas, one of which Jacobus said inspired the development of a plan to put the dewatering plant behind Sibley instead of next to Brookmont. Most of the alternatives involve piping the watery sediment to some other area for drying and disposal, in many cases to nearby federal facilities, such as those controlled by the Navy or the CIA. Jacobus has said that the other agency has rejected each idea, leading the activists to call for a more regional, multi-agency approach to the problem of what to do with the byproducts of water filtration.
In an interview, Jacobus said the Corps had abandoned plans for a landfill because another Corps project in the area -- cleaning up World War I munitions in Spring Valley -- would not be completed in time to allow the landfill to proceed. Even so, Graham said activists are wondering why the landfill remains on the Corps' list of potential solutions. Jacobus said the Corps is left with two variations on a single approach: building the dewatering plant at one of two sites on its property and trucking the "cake" to a disposal site elsewhere. Neighbors are also not happy about the prospect of more truck traffic. A study last year by the Corps' engineering consultant said disposing of the "cake" would require eight to 33 trucks a day.
The only real question is whether to place the facility on the District or Maryland side of the reservoir property. "Either one of these alternatives will work for us operationally," Jacobus said.
The neighbor closest to the District site, Sibley Hospital, is amenable. "We're fine with it," said Jerry Price, Sibley's chief operating officer.
The Corps plans to release its draft environmental impact statement in mid-April. That will open a 45-day comment period that will precede the designation of a "preferred alternative." Jacobus said the Corps plans to issue a final decision by Oct. 17.
Stuart Philip Ross, a District resident who heads the Palisades Citizens Association and is active in Concerned Neighbors, said the issue might end up in court. "I think there are going to be some serious legal challenges filed," he said.
Thomas P. Jacobus manages the Washington Aqueduct, which wants to build a plant to dry out sediment from the Potomac River.