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Power Outage Unleashes Raw Sewage

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 20, 2006

Seventeen million gallons of raw sewage spilled into the Potomac River yesterday after a three-hour power failure at the regional Blue Plains sewage treatment plant, with both the cause and impact of the accident in dispute.

The plant's electric supply went dead about 12:30 a.m. after a 69,000-volt line into the facility failed for unknown reasons, Pepco spokesman Robert Dobkin said. A backup line normally would have been available quickly, but it had been taken down for maintenance. It was brought back up about 3:30 a.m., which restored power to the facility.

It was the first total power failure at the plant, the region's largest, since 1992, when more than 17 million gallons of wastewater reached the Potomac. Each day, Blue Plains, on the east bank of the river and just north of the Maryland line in Southwest Washington, treats 330 million gallons of sewage from the District and Montgomery, Prince George's, Fairfax and Loudoun counties.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was notified of the spill about 9 a.m., predicted that it would not have a significant environmental impact. But the president of the Anacostia Watershed Society said the spill from a combined sewer-stormwater pipe near Bolling Air Force Base would create "a cloud of death" to fish and other aquatic life in the river. No drinking water intakes are near the spill.

EPA spokeswoman Terri White said the spill will be diluted quickly because of the Potomac's rapid flow. She said the size of the spill "is less than what you would typically get during a major wet weather event," when the city's combined sewer-stormwater pipes often overflow into waterways.

The acting director of the D.C. Department of the Environment agreed with the EPA's initial assessment. "We consider every large sewage overflow to be a serious issue, but based on the information we have so far, we believe that the impacts on human health and the environment are minimal," Elizabeth Berry said.

But Robert Boone, head of the watershed society, said yesterday's spill is far more concentrated than an overflow during a storm, which is mixed with rain. "There's going to be some fish bellying up. . . . A cloud of death going down the river," he predicted.

Michele Quander-Collins, spokeswoman for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, which operates the plant, said the facility has a large storage capacity in the event of a problem. She said utility officials had thought that if the main power line went out, Pepco would be able to restore the backup line within 90 minutes, which would have been quick enough to prevent a spill.

But Pepco's Dobkin said: "In our discussions with them in planning for taking one of the two feeders out, our understanding was that they had four hours without power before they would incur any operational problems. An hour and a half was never mentioned to us."

He said the plant was the only customer affected by the outage. White said the EPA will investigate the spill's cause and might fine the utility if it concludes that the accident could have been prevented.

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