A Sept. 22 article on a lawsuit to be filed against the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission misidentified one of the environmental groups bringing the suit. It is the Natural Resources Defense Council, not the National Resource Defense Council. (Published 9/24/04)

Several environmental organizations plan to announce today that they will sue the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission for allowing millions of gallons of raw or partially treated sewage to flow into streams and rivers in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

"We are seeking a comprehensive fix to this problem, and we are asking WSSC to do its job and protect the health of residents," said Nancy Stoner, director of the National Resource Defense Council's Clean Water Project. "They have done years' worth of damage by allowing this problem to occur."

The environmental groups, which also include the Audubon Naturalist Society, Friends of Sligo Creek and the Anacostia Watershed Society, are required by federal law to give the WSSC 60 days' notice of their intention to file the suit, which accuses the agency of violating the federal Clean Water Act. They said they will give that notice to the agency today.

The WSSC, one of the nation's largest water and sewer utilities, serves 1.6 million people in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

Stoner said WSSC records show that nearly 92 million gallons of raw or partially treated sewage has flowed illegally from system pipes over the past 21/2 years. A Washington Post review of those same records earlier this month found that 130 million gallons of sewage had been released during the past two years.

Stoner said she could not account for the discrepancy between the two reviews.

When he learned of the problem earlier this month, Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, said that "130 million gallons discharged is 130 million gallons too much. It's a violation of the Clean Water Act and EPA policy."

The sewage pollutes the Anacostia and Patuxent rivers with human waste and puts nearby residents at increased risk of contracting diseases such as cholera and hepatitis, according to health experts.

In a statement, the WSSC said it would not comment on the suit until it is filed. But officials pointed out that much of the sewage overflow in recent years was caused by severe storms, such as Hurricane Isabel last year. The agency plans to spend $150 million over the next six years to upgrade its infrastructure and analyze overflow patterns, the statement said. By comparison, it spent $40 million on those same programs in 1996 to 2001.

"Sanitary sewer overflows impact wastewater utilities across the nation, but we are confident that our engineering, maintenance and operational talents -- coupled with our financial commitment to our wastewater collection systems -- can dramatically minimize and eliminate where possible" the overflows, the statement said.

Representatives of the environmental organizations that plan to sue said the WSSC needs to do even more to upgrade its aging network of 5,300 miles of wastewater collection pipes.

"We suspect there are a lot of leaky pipes, cracked pipes, illegal connections where people over the years have connected sewer lines into storm water pipes," said Jim Connelly, a member of the Anacostia Watershed Society.

Connelly recently completed a study that found the waters of the Anacostia polluted in Bladensburg, in Prince George's County. He said 14 percent of the bacteria found near Bladensburg had a human origin.