The Environmental Protection Agency told local leaders yesterday that the government will not pay for the expansion or construction of any more sewage plants in the metropolitan Washington area.
Local officials have been counting on federal money to pay for the sewer plants that are necessary to continue the area's rapid growth. Many of them are stunned by the tough decision from EPA, delivered to a meeting at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
"The region will require hundreds of millions of dollars (to fund future construction)," said Austan S. Librach, director of COG's water resources department. "I don't think the region could afford to pay all that itself."
"We're going through a lot of motions that won't mean anything at all," said Lewis Waters of the District's municipal planning office, referring to exhaustive regional planning efforts aimed at qualifying the area for EPA funding of sewer plant construction.
The EPA's position was spelled out, after an intense round of questioning, by Greene A. Jones, director of the water division at EPA's regional headquarters in Philadelphia.
"When there is pure and simple growth," Greene told area officials, "the local communities will be expected to pay for it themselves."
He said the first priority for federal funding, 75 percent of a project's cost is the clean-up of existing pollution problems. EPA has already financed the clean-up of the area's existing problems caused by inadequate treatment.
That funding has been a boon to Prince George's County and Northern Virginia - which used the money to build generous-sized plants that can handle growth for years to come - but not to District and Montgomery County.
Both the District and Montgomery say they will need new construction in the early 1980s if they are to continue growing. But under the newly defined EPA policy, growth is not paid for by the federal government.
In later years, Prince George's and Northern Virginia will have to expand their facilities - and that construction too would be a local responsibility.
The net result will be a major new financial burden for local jurisdictions, all of which are already under pressure from taxpayers to hold the line on spending.
One other likely result is an intensification of the sewer feuds that have hobbled regional planning. The feuding also has prompted court suits pitting Montgomery against the District, the District against Montgomery, and the Virginia State Water Control Board and the District against the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.
New warfare is likely to line up the have-nots-the District and Montgomery - against the haves - Prince George's and Northern Virginia.
Already Montgomery and Prince George's are quarreling. Montgomery has asked Prince George's to lend it some sewage treatment. So far, Prince George's has said no.
The District, which wants to keep its booming development going, is simply laying claim to a bigger share at the Blue Plains regional treatment plant. One District official said the city agreed to its present share - 135 million gallons daily - when "it was a 'colonial' subject."
One of the least surprised local officials at yesterday's meeting was David G. Sobers, director of Montgomery's office of environmental planning.
For months, Sobers and other Montgomery officials, including County Executive James P. Gleason, have been saying that EPA would not finance growth in the county.
"Do you believe it now?" Sobers said to a reporter after Jones laid down EPA's funding policy.
COG's Librach said "I think the policy needs to changed. It is a poor policy."
Jones said, however, that the policy is based on 1977 amendments to the federal clean-water act.
Both Maryland and Virginia officials said at the meeting that their states have more than enough existing problems to consume all the federal allocations likely to be made over the next five years. Virginia says it has existing needs that would require $800 million but expects to get only $388 million between now and 1984. Maryland expects to get only $500 million for existing problems, but says it needs "almost double" that.