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Keeping Reston's Water Clean

Latest incident has RA on its guard.

After a thick milky-white substance was found last week in a local creek that feeds into Lake Anne, Reston Association (RA) officials stepped up their efforts to educate members on the dangers of storm-water drain dumping.

“It looked like about 50 gallons of milk had been dumped in the creek,” said Dan Warfield, RA’s construction and repair manager. “I had no idea what it was.”

Warfield was the first one on the scene of last week’s spill at a stream that leads directly into Lake Anne, just behind Orchard Lane. Apparently the spill material was found leaking from a pipe located less than 25 feet from the Waterview Cluster dock on Lake Anne. He said the “liquidy” matter was floating low to the ground of the shallow creek bed. “It looked heavy, like it was sinking,” he said.

Working in conjunction with the county’s emergency hazardous materials team, Warfield helped stem the spill while looking for clues as to the source. Building a temporary dam, the team was able to keep the mystery fluid from moving further downstream. “We began pulling up storm-drain lids but, we never found the source,” he said. “Unfortunately, that is not uncommon.”

Dean Sherick knows this scenario all too well. Sherick is the hazardous materials investigator with Fairfax County Department of Fire and Rescue. As head of the fire marshal’s HAZMAT enforcement team, Sherick has been tracking down an estimated 600 similar cases from Mount Vernon to McLean ever since the Fairfax County opened the department nine years ago.

Sherick and his small team of investigators were able to determine that the material found Monday was “nonhazardous and had an unknown source.” Sherick described the spill material as being like “a plaster of Paris-type substance.”

THERE IS NO TELLING just how many similar incidents happen each day or week, RA officials said, it is just that most, they presume, go unnoticed or unreported.

Every day, everything from paint products to pet waste and gasoline to grass clippings are finding their way into the storm-water drains all over Reston. While not a problem unique to Reston, the town’s abundance of freshwater creeks, streams and lakes are logical endpoints for many of these pollutants.

Diana Saccone, the RA watershed manager, estimated her office responds to about “a dozen” similar calls a year, or one a month. “There are many more we never find out about,” she said.

While the results of these spills on Reston’s fragile watershed may not be evident at first, the long-term implications are potentially devastating and the cleanup is “exceedingly costly,” Saccone said. Excess nutrients, algae blooms and direct toxicity to aquatic flora and fauna are just a few of the effects on the regions lakes and streams, Reston’s watershed guru said.

On a national scale, vehicle fluids, such as oil, gasoline and antifreeze, are the number one surface water quality problems, RA officials said. Rain sends the fluids from driveways, parking lots and streets into storm drains

“We can and will pursue legal action,” Saccone said. “We just haven’t been able to catch them in the act. We strongly encourage people to call us or the county if they see something suspicious.”

Sherick warned that people caught dumping harmful contaminants into the lake and its tributaries could be facing class one and class two misdemeanors, and six months in jail or a $1,000 fine.

WHILE THE MOST RECENT incident was contained to a relatively small section of a Lake Anne tributary, it could have been much worse RA officials said. Larry Butler, RA’s parks and recreation director, said he knows of two “major” spills in the past 20 years or so. Back in the 1980s, Butler said a truck filling up heating oil at the Lake Anne Fellowship House “blew a seal” and spilled 400 to 500 gallons of heating oil into the lake killing several birds and geese.

Not all incidents, like the fellowship house, are accidental, Butler insisted. Many of the spills result from contractors or individuals cleaning their paintbrushes in the gutters. “Most people don’t think about it,” Butler said. “Some are just trying to save time, others are cutting costs. We have found that once you explain the situation to them, they begin to change their behavior."

“With the construction industry, it is often just a matter of education,” Sherick said.

Without direct witnesses, it is typically hard, sometimes nearly impossible, to find the source of the pollutants. “It is a time-consuming process,” Claudia Thompson-Deahl, the RA environmental resource manager said. “It is hard to catch and hard to pin down.”

With the June 9 spill near Lake Anne, RA officials involved in the cleanup put out booms which, Thompson-Deahl said, absorb all the mysterious fluid.

“It’s amazing to me that this still goes on. Hopefully people are learning. Hopefully,” she said.

Warfield said RA is trying to bring all of the clusters together to educate them on the problem of storm-water drain dumping. Most of these incidents happen on cluster property, Warfield said, so the individual clusters need to help solve the problem. “We have some spills, but fortunately nothing too terribly bad,” he said. “At least not yet.”

A big part of the education process, RA officials say, is teaching residents that everything that goes down the storm drains does not end up in some sort of a sewage treatment plant. That could not be further from the truth, Thompson-Deahl said. “It’s a funny misconception."

IN THE WASHINGTON, D.C.-metropolitan area, only the district has a drainage system that leads to a sanitary treatment facility.

With a diet of steady rain and sometimes violent storms this spring, Reston has seen more than just additional water flowing through its many streams and lakes. Trash and debris swept up from the storms have turned Reston’s lakes into catch-alls for the community’s garbage. “Our summer crews have been working really hard to pick up trash,” Butler said.

All storm drains in and around Reston, as with most drains in the region, make their way to Reston’s streams and lakes and eventually into the Potomac River and the ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. “They think they can just dump anything down a storm drain,” the longtime environmental resources manager said. "Well, they would be wrong.”

Even seemingly harmless things like grass clippings and tree branches can cause havoc by clogging the county’s drainage system, officials said. Besides being unsightly, unattended pet waste can be swept into the watershed and create high fecal counts in the water, Thompson-Deahl said.

While normal everyday items like latex-based paints may not be considered hazardous, Sherick said, they can still be considered a “pollutant.”

For those residents who frequently wash their car in their driveway or along the street, Butler has some advice: don’t. The parks and recreation director suggests washing cars at a professional car wash or over the front lawn.

While the problem has been around for decades, recent “increased urbanization and redevelopment” has added to the phenomenon.

The man-made threat to Reston’s ecosystems has been a “continual problem” since Reston was founded nearly 40 years ago, Thompson-Deahl said. “It was a problem then, and it is a problem now,” she said.