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.
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."
The commission responded that its plan significantly addressed the new development. The EPA rejected the plan June 11, citing a variety of shortcomings in the data provided.
David Sternberg, spokesman for the EPA's mid-Atlantic region, declined to comment on whether the agency believed National Harbor contributed to overflows at Broad Creek.
Two WSSC commissioners said in interviews that they did not force the development to make infrastructure improvements beyond what is normal for any business or residence connecting to the sewer system.
Andre Gingles, an attorney for the Peterson Cos., which developed National Harbor, said the group did everything that was required before hooking into the system -- including water and sewer infrastructure improvements that cost about $19 million. That includes a $7 million pumping station to handle sewage.
"The way these things go, there's a capacity analysis that's done. . . . We can't hook in unless that analysis shows that we could sort of go in there," he said.
The development's new station has had no spills, but the troubles arise when the sewage reaches the Broad Creek pumping station, which receives all of the waste discharged from National Harbor on its way to the Piscataway Waste Water Treatment Plant farther south.
On May 11 and 12, a powerful storm swept into the Washington area, dumping four inches of rain on most of the region. Overloaded by the influx of water, the Broad Creek station dumped 3.7 million gallons of waste into the creek.
Jim Neustadt, a WSSC spokesman, said rainfall generally correlates with the overflows, noting that in 2007, when parts of the region were suffering from a drought, only 150,000 gallons overflowed into Broad Creek.
"There was less than 33 inches of rainfall the entire year. By contrast we have had almost 27 inches of rain so far in 2008," he said.
The WSSC approved purchasing two generators last week for $9.6 million for the Broad Creek pumping station. Officials said they will be operational by next year. The commission also plans to build a new force main -- essentially a bigger pipe -- so that the pumping station can increase its capacity from 37 million gallons a day to 55 million gallons of waste a day.
That will cost more than $50 million. Neustadt said it should be completed by 2012.
Residents said the fixes are too little, too late, and they wonder whether they will happen at all. At least twice before, the WSSC promised to get generators for Broad Creek but didn't, they said. Neustadt said the commission was not satisfied with the bids it received.
"Does it satisfy me?" said Peter Masciola, a Broad Creek resident. "No. I'd like it tomorrow. I'd like it a year ago."