Some Steps Hailed After Sewage Spill

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2006

One month after a bad sewage spill on an important tributary of the Anacostia River, city officials and supporters of Watts Branch's restoration talk of a renewed effort and energy there -- as well as continuing frustrations.

The spill occurred at a bend in the stream where contract crews for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority had been working on a 21-inch pipe. Sometime over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, WASA said, vandals apparently turned off a pump and generator at that location, and for the next 24 hours, tens of thousands of gallons of sewage flowed freely.

The incident brought calls for punitive measures against WASA, sustained attention from the city's Health Department and greater mobilization by residents of the Northeast Washington neighborhoods that surround the branch and the park that follows it for 1.5 miles.

Health Director Gregg A. Pane, who rejected the idea of fines from the start, said last week that the sewer authority had essentially met his deadline for delivering a report on repairs and had begun carrying them out.

"They have absolutely done everything we asked . . . so we are satisfied," Pane said.

Steve Coleman, director of Washington Parks and People, is both pleased and critical. His nonprofit organization has led a long campaign to turn the branch and park from a hard-luck dumping ground into a community centerpiece with activities and concerts. For the past year, its volunteers have maintained the park with little city help or money.

"They're really starting to snap to on a number of different fronts," Coleman said of WASA and health officials. The most positive action has been WASA workers' conducting visual assessments and dye tests of pipes in the stream valley, he said. "And now they're following up with an in-pipe camera assessment. That's unprecedented. They've been promising that for four years."

The surveying should identify other potential break points in the deteriorating sewer lines, which park advocates and environmentalists say continually pollute the branch. At a Feb. 2 meeting attended by city and authority officials, Coleman said WASA dropped its contention that the contamination could be traced to wildlife, acknowledging sewer leaks as the primary cause.

Parks and People and the city remain at odds, however, over the extent of damage done by the heavy equipment used before and after last month's spill. In an e-mail to an aide to D.C. Council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), Coleman described the damage as significant, listing "massive tire ruts, soil compaction and clear-cutting of a whole section of the King Nature Sanctuary" near 46th and Grant streets NE.

They also disagree over how quickly the Health Department can move ahead on water testing and warnings. Although the acting senior deputy director of the Environmental Health Administration recently indicated that both were in the works, Coleman said "immediate, comprehensive testing" of fecal coliform levels in and along the branch is needed. If the results show contamination that could endanger people, signs should be installed quickly to alert the community, he said.

WASA is scheduled to submit a more comprehensive report next month on how it will upgrade and maintain the sewer system along Watts Branch. A report from a joint city-federal stream restoration project also is expected. The stream suffers from high-volume runoff from adjacent streets during heavy rains, and during strong storms, debris and overflow sewage wash into it unchecked.

Health Director Pane said WASA has assured him that it would handle any future incidents differently. Last month, not only was the authority unable to reach the project contractor to have crews return to restart the pump and generator, but it also failed to immediately alert the Health Department.

"We want to be promptly notified of any sewer spill," Pane said. "Any sewer spill, as far as I'm concerned, is a public health hazard."

A WASA spokeswoman did not return repeated calls for comment.

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