WASHINGTON (CN) — The District of Columbia on Tuesday reached a historic settlement with the region’s largest electricity provider, after it was accused of dumping toxic chemicals in the Anacostia River. The $57 million deal is the largest environmental settlement in D.C.’s history.
Announced by D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb, the agreement resolves civil claims brought by the city, which said Potomac Electric Power Company for decades released hazardous materials such as polychlorinated biphenyls and petroleum and polluted water into the Anacostia.
A large chunk of the money, $47 million, will go toward cleaning up the river. The remaining $10 million accounts for penalties.
The company must clean up contamination at two facilities, Buzzard Point and Benning Road, where much of the dumping took place, and investigate the environmental costs of its 60,000 underground transformer vaults found across D.C.
To top it off, the energy company, known locally as Pepco, will pay the district to oversee those efforts.
“For far too long, district residents have been deprived of fully enjoying one of our greatest environmental resources — the Anacostia River — due to chronic, illegal and intentional pollution,” Schwalb said in a statement on Tuesday.
“For decades, Pepco routinely discharged hazardous chemicals into soil, groundwater and storm sewers, which fouled the Anacostia River, deprived us of the river’s many benefits and endangered public health and safety. And as is too often the case, communities of color east of the river bore the brunt of the company’s illegal conduct.”
The Buzzard Point facility and the Benning Road facility are located in Wards 6 and 7, respectively, which were predominately Black communities at the time of Pepco’s dumping. Ward 6 has since seen a large influx of white residents, the result of intense gentrification over the past decade.
Ward 7, which has not seen the same amount of development as Ward 6, has an estimated 64,592 Black residents, 86% of the area’s overall population of 74,561, according to a DC Health Matters analysis for 2023.
“The long-term impacts of releasing toxic, hazardous chemical pollutants into the Anacostia River has had disproportionate health impacts on lower-income, Black residents in D.C.,” said Akosua Ali, president of the district's NAACP chapter, in a statement. “This historic, $57 million settlement against Pepco … is a significant step towards addressing the generational health impacts of releasing hazardous, chemical pollutants for over 100 years.”
Schwalb added that Pepco does not bear sole responsibility for the river’s pollution. He credited the company for being the “first responsible party to accept formal responsibility for its illegal practices,” signaling further litigation against polluters near the Capitol region.
Chuck McDade, a spokesman for Pepco, said the company discontinued its practice of discharging stormwater more than a decade ago and is committed to clean-up efforts.
“We don’t just work here, we live here. Our families and our friends live here too,” McDade said in a statement emailed to Courthouse News. “We remain committed to continuing our work with the District as well as other local agencies and community groups to improve the overall health of the Anacostia River.”
Sometimes called “D.C.’s forgotten river,” compared to the larger Potomac, the Anacostia River came into the spotlight over the summer when residents were told they'd have a chance to swim legally in the river for the first time since the 1970s. The city announced a free, one-day event, called Splash, which was scheduled for July — but has since been rescheduled twice due to heavy rains in July and late September.
Residents may get another chance in spring 2024, but the long-polluted river still has a long way to go.
Despite gradual improvements, the river’s overall health received a failing water quality grade last Thursday from the Anacostia Watershed Society., due in part to a dearth of underwater vegetation, low rates of dissolved oxygen and concerns about further pollution from storm runoff.
Still, there are clear signs the river’s health is on the upswing. North American river otters have returned, and the watershed society released over 36,000 river mussels, which play a vital biofiltration role, similar to oysters in the Chesapeake Bay. An estimated 88 million gallons of river water being filtered each year, according to the society.Follow @Ryan_Knappy
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