Legal Review: D.C. Waterways Not Safe for Recreational Activity

by John Yannone September 14, 2016 at 12:30 pm 1 Comment

Legal Review PriceBenowitz

Maryland accident attorney John Yannone covers cases ranging from medical malpractice to traumatic brain injury.

Three groups have called out Washington D.C. regulators for allegedly knowing since 1996 that fecal bacteria levels in its waterways are too high for safe recreational use. Anacostia Riverkeeper along with Kingman Park Civic Association and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network are taking legal action against federal regulators in order to raise awareness and enforce safety measures for unsafe water.

Heavy rain aggravates the issue, causing the levels of fecal bacteria, particularly E. coli, in the water to spike, which elevates the risk of illness for anyone who kayaks, wades, canoes or swims in the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers or waterways like Rock Creek. A person doing any sort of water activities could contract a nasty virus if water so much as splashes them in the face.

During these spikes in fecal bacteria levels, people are at risk of getting sick from contact with water that fails to meet D.C.’s health standards. According to the complaint filed by the plaintiffs, people who are exposed even briefly to the contaminated water can suffer health complications like skin infections, stomach flu and ear and eye infections. Heavy rains and other precipitation carries leakage of flushed human waste from offices and homes from the sewer outfalls directly into streams that end up in the Potomac River, Anacostia River and Rock Creek waterways.

The municipal separate storm sewer systems also pollute the rivers with untreated animal waste from pets and other contaminants. The Blue Plains water-treatment plant, the largest sewage plant in the world, was also cited by environmentalists as a source of overflow contamination of untreated sewage water.

In the 1990s, a lawsuit forced Washington D.C. to establish standards of water-quality that included a total maximum daily load for E. coli bacteria in the water, but by 2004, the reports were only taking into account the annual average, not daily loads.

The lack of specificity is problematic because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has stated that even brief peaks in fecal bacteria levels can cause illness so that an hour or so on the water significantly raises the chances of a person getting sick. These spikes will not be accounted for in 30-day averages and certainly not yearly averages.

An attorney from Earthjustice Washington, Jennifer Chavez, is representing the plaintiffs in this case and has repeated the groups’ rhetoric that it is unfair to residents and visitors to D.C. who want to do water recreational activities but may be exposed to high levels of fecal bacteria in the water. The EPA has not commented on the case, though the groups have demanded that they create new water-quality standards in a year.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has issued similar warnings to those who engage in recreational activities in the watershed, stating that people should not have contact with the water for two days after a heavy rain. They found water samples in Baltimore County in early August with bacteria levels 400 times over the safety standards for safe recreational use.

Until measures are taken to improve the water-quality standards in D.C., it may be safest to avoid water activities during high-risk times, and of course, to check back with the watershed organizations to stay up to date on contamination levels before heading out for a day on the water.

Borderstan contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the author — our contributor and law firm sponsor Price Benowitz LLP — and do not necessarily reflect the views of Borderstan.


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