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EPA Told to Set Timeline for Cutting Nitrogen Pollution

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Environmental Protection Agency must establish a timeline for the District's Blue Plains sewage plant to reduce the amount of a key pollutant that it discharges -- and include that timeline in the plant's official permit, a federal appeals board has ruled.

The ruling, from the EPA's Environmental Appeals Board, waded deeply into the arcana of environmental law, and the result was a victory for the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation. The decision came down March 19, but some parties to the case were not notified until yesterday.

In 2006, the EPA required the Blue Plains plant -- which is on the Potomac River and is one of the region's largest single sources of pollution -- to reduce its output of nitrogen.

But the EPA's permit did not say when it had to be done. The bay foundation filed a legal challenge, saying the law required the permit to set deadlines for the cleanup.

In its ruling, the appeals board agreed.

"We absolutely believe that this decision will lead to a cleaner Potomac sooner," said William C. Baker, the foundation's president. He added, "Now, they will be under a legal requirement to get it done by a date certain."

It's still not clear, though, what that date will be.

Baker said that by the bay foundation's calculations, the deadline for a cleanup would be no later than 2013.

But a spokesman for the EPA said no details about the timetable had been worked out.

And an attorney for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, which runs the Blue Plains plant, said it would take longer to make the needed improvements.

"It's beyond five years, certainly," David Evans, a partner in the law firm McGuireWoods LLP, said yesterday. "We're looking at somewhere in the five- to 10-year timeline to get this done."

The Blue Plains plant, near the District's southern tip, processes sewage from the city and from Montgomery, Prince George's, Loudoun and Fairfax counties. The treated water is dumped into the Potomac near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

That treated water contains large amounts of nitrogen, which can feed environmentally damaging algae blooms in the Potomac and the Chesapeake.

The Blue Plains plant has been upgraded to slash the amount of nitrogen it releases into the river, but now it is being required to reduce the amount even more.

Evans said that to comply with the new permit, the Water and Sewer Authority would need to make about $800 million worth of changes, including new treatment facilities and an expansion of plans to build a system of underground storage tunnels to hold rainwater during storms.

David Sternberg, a spokesman for the EPA's mid-Atlantic region, said the agency had always planned to require a timeline for the upgrades, even if it was not included in the official permit.

He said the bay foundation's challenge had only served to slow down the process.

"If it's going to take several months to modify and reissue the permits" with the timetables included, he said, "I don't see how that would speed things up."

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