AFTER SEVERAL YEARS of refereeing regional sewage-treatment fights, Federal District Judge John Lewis Smith Jr. must be getting pretty tired of the wrangling over sludge, which Blue Plains generates at a rate of 900 tons per day - and which no area is eager to take. Thus it's understandable that Judge Smith got annoyed Thursday when District officials insisted that there is no acceptable place within the city limits to bury or compost the city's share of that sludge, some 450 tons per day, after the current disposal plan expires on September 22.
The city's stance is also understandable. The District has little open land, especially if you don't count the Mall, the Bolling-Anacostia military reservation and other areas under federal control. Composting sludge at Oxon Cove, next to Blue plains, would be technically feasible with strict safety controls. So would a project on some temporaily available acreage at Blue Plains itself. But Ward 8 residents have raised a mighty fuss at the idea of any more sewage-treatment projects there. And that, in an election year, has made Mayor Walter Washington and the council call those sites "unacceptance."
The city government therefore wants to use District-owned land at Muirkirk, in Prince George's County, and at Lorton in Fairfax County. Those are more spacious sites. They are also outside Ward 8. But suburban officials, many of whom also face elections this year, predictably object to that idea. Besides anticipating local complaints, they argue that the suburbs have already handled a lot of Blue Plains sludge - and have found ways to treat their own shares of the load within their own boundaries after September 22. They think the District government should also meet its obligations and take the political heat. And they have promised to use their laws to keep city sludge out.
There are two ways to break a political impasse of this sort. One is for Judge Smith to dictate a site. City officials would be relieved of responsibility if they were flatly ordered to use Blue Plains. Or Judge Smith could order the suburds not to block the Muirkirk and Lorton plans. Judicial fiats, though, are likely to bring appeals, more bitterness and the real possibility of a sludge-disposal crisis on September 22.
It would be better for someone to yield voluntarily, and best for everyone to compromise. A combination of Blue Plains and suburban sites might make the most sense technically and economically. Moreover, an accord on this would offer more hope that future waste-treatment fights could be resolved without resort to court. The way things are going now, we shudder to think what Judge Smith may have to do in a couple of years, when the new Blue Plains facilities will be finished and the sludge output will soar.