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Correction to This Article
ยท A June 23 Metro article and its accompanying graphic incorrectly reported how much sewage overflowed into Prince George's County's Broad Creek in 2007. About 1 million gallons overflowed into the creek that year.

Residents Blame National Harbor for Sewage Spills

Sean and Linda O'Day check out the view of Broad Creek from their porch in Fort Washington. Many residents in the area say that National Harbor is to blame for sewage spills into the creek. Engineers blame heavy rains and outages.
Sean and Linda O'Day check out the view of Broad Creek from their porch in Fort Washington. Many residents in the area say that National Harbor is to blame for sewage spills into the creek. Engineers blame heavy rains and outages. (By Dominic Bracco Ii -- The Washington Post)
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By Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 23, 2008

The people living on Broad Creek in Prince George's County thought they had it made. Only about 15 miles from the District, they enjoyed fishing, kayaking and spectacular views of the Potomac River from their back yards.

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But in the past six months, more than 12 million gallons of sewage have spilled into their beloved creek, almost as much as the past three years combined. Engineers blame heavy rains and power outages. The residents, though, point north to the county's largest development: National Harbor.

"Whatever's coming down the pipe from National Harbor is just exacerbating the situation," said Bill Windsor, 60, of Fort Washington. "I think that the capacity of the Broad Creek pumping station was already at its max or already exceeded before National Harbor ever came online."

A draft engineering report prepared for the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission last year said the Broad Creek station had "more than sufficient" capacity to handle the 2.3 million gallons of sewage that could eventually flow every day from the new development just south of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. But the report warned that the flows would "reduce the pumping station's capacity during extreme wet weather events."

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also raised questions in March about the potential impact of National Harbor after reviewing a WSSC plan for preventing sewage spills. The federal agency rejected the plan this month.

Since the development opened in April, about 7.4 million gallons of sewage have gushed into Broad Creek. A 4.6 million-gallon overflow occurred after a power outage shut down the pumps in February.

WSSC officials say the overflows were an unavoidable consequence of the recent flurry of storms, including a particularly heavy rain in May. They said National Harbor, which adds 400,000 gallons of sewage to the system a day, contributed only 2 percent of recent overflows.

"We are working to solve the problem," said WSSC Prince George's Commissioner Prem P. Agarwal. "We take every overflow problem very seriously, and when we are made aware, we take steps not only to contain the problem but to make sure it does not happen to the best of our ability in the future."

Residents said that the WSSC's steps to fix the problem have been little more than lip service and that the commission should have completed proposed upgrades for the Broad Creek pumping station -- adding larger pipes and generators to forestall power outages -- before National Harbor opened.

"There was no way in the world they were going to interfere with this happening," said Sean O'Day of Fort Washington, as he cruised past National Harbor in his boat on a recent afternoon. "We don't have a problem with National Harbor. It's just that, how can you allow people to connect to a sewer system that doesn't have the capacity to handle it?"

Every overflow is illegal under federal and state law, and the WSSC has been sued over spills in Broad Creek and other area streams. In 2005, the commission signed a consent decree with the EPA, the Maryland Department of the Environment and other groups agreeing to pay a penalty and to implement a plan to eliminate such spills. The WSSC submitted a plan for Broad Creek in December 2007.

In a March letter to the commission, the EPA questioned whether that plan took into account the additional flow from National Harbor during a power outage and stated that the EPA "expects WSSC to make every effort to have adequate facilities in place prior to any new hook-ups."

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