The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lawsuit alleges Alexandria has been polluting Potomac with coal tar

The Alexandria City Council meets in February at City Hall. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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An environmental organization that monitors the Potomac River is suing Alexandria, charging that the Northern Virginia city has been allowing coal tar and other cancer-causing pollutants to contaminate the waterway for decades.

The Potomac Riverkeeper Network’s lawsuit, which was filed in federal court earlier this month, concerns a storm pipe that is meant to collect rainwater near the former location of the now-defunct Alexandria Town Gas company and empties into the river through a nearby outfall at the edge of Oronoco Street in Old Town.

Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said that pipe has also collected toxic chemicals from contaminated soil and groundwater at the former gas plant for decades and deposited those pollutants into the river — even as the city has spent millions to address the issue.

“The idea that they would continue hemorrhaging oil out of this pipe after six years of us asking, begging, pleading them to do the right thing — it’s frustrating that we’re at this place,” Naujoks added. “I thought this would have been resolved years ago.”

Andrea Blackford, a spokeswoman for the city, said in a statement that Alexandria was “surprised” by the suit. Local government officials have “worked closely” with the group and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality to remediate the remnants of contamination at the gas plant site, she added.

The manufactured-gas factory fueled homes and businesses in Alexandria starting in the late 1800s until its closure in the middle of the last century. Coal tar discharges at the outfall were first reported in 1975, and local officials entered into a voluntary remediation program run by the state in 2000. Since then, the city “has implemented the approved remedial measures in accordance with the approved schedules,” Blackford added.

Still, Naujoks said that the problem has not been properly addressed — an especially poor showing by a city that was one of the first in Virginia to adopt an “eco-city” charter, he added.

According to the city’s website, Alexandria has installed floating booms meant to contain the pollutants near the outfall, relined the storm pipe, and installed a treatment system that is meant to remove coal tar from groundwater before it discharges into the Potomac. It has also dredged contaminated sediment and capped off that area to prevent it from seeping into the rest of the river.

The lawsuit, however, charges that those efforts have not done enough to stop the pollution — in violation of the federal Clean Water Act, and at risk to humans and animals that come into contact with the river.

“You can dredge all you want. But if oil continues to discharge, it’s going to get recontaminated,” Naujoks said. “And I believe it has.”

The coal tar contamination is one of several environmental issues the city has been struggling with due to aging pipes in Old Town. Last year, Alexandria embarked on a massive infrastructure project to replace the historic neighborhood’s combined sewer system, which spews millions of gallons of raw sewage into the Potomac River when it overflows.

As part of the city’s capital improvement plans, Alexandria lawmakers are considering a plan to spend an additional $9.76 million to maintain the groundwater treatment system and the dredge and cap system.