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Activists Think Potomac Interceptor Stinks

Groups withdraw legal appeals, but some say WASA is dragging its feet on odor abatement.

Even if you can’t see the square, chimney-like structure on the muddy slope behind Lock 8 on the C&O Canal, you can smell it. The stone block is one of dozens of vents that channel up from the Potomac Interceptor, which each day conveys 65 million gallons of untreated sewage from Dulles Airport through Loudoun and Fairfax counties and along the canal to Blue Plains sewage treatment plant in Washington.

Matthew Logan, president of the Potomac Conservancy, recently attended an event next to Lockhouse 8 to kick off a celebration of National Public Lands Day, which was Saturday. He said, “The stink was just… I mean, it was disgusting. … It turns your stomach.”

Visitors to the canal have long known “that smell,” and many attribute it to the stagnant, muddy waters of the canal itself. “That’s what’s really unfair is that people attribute the smell to the canal, and it has nothing to do with the canal,” said Burr Gray of the Cabin John Citizens Association. “I think if people knew what was really causing the smell, they would be pretty upset.”

Interim odor controls have been in place in many of the vents since July 2000. But since they are passive measures, they are often overwhelmed by the volume of air being pushed out. “I’ve been here 26 years, and the smell has not gone away at all… not for a day in 26 years,” said Reed Martin, a Cabin John resident. John Trypus, an engineer with Washington Area Sewer Authority (WASA), which owns and maintains the Interceptor, says that WASA has had “About a 70-percent success rate on [the temporary measures]. … In most cases they do seem to help out.”

AFTER THOROUGH ENVIRONMENTAL STUDY and public outreach, WASA set forth a plan to design and install permanent filter systems by May 2005. But Martin and others will have to wait a bit longer than that.

Trypus said that the permanent measures will be completed “about two years later than originally anticipated,” roughly the summer of 2007. “We are in the detailed design now,” he said, adding that WASA hopes to take bids for the building contract this spring, after which residents can expect about two years of construction.

The delays are due to “a combination of things” according to Trypus. “There’s been a lot of adjustments working with the Park Service. … We’re incorporating some rest rooms into the designs to provide more of a public benefit.” Though WASA runs the Interceptor, much of the line is on land controlled by the National Park Service. “We always felt like the Park Service could have done a little bit more over the years to yell at them and get them to focus on the stink more,” said Gray.

Active carbon filters with air intakes inside of sound-proof structures will be constructed at six sites covering about 30 miles of the sewer line. Three of the sites will be in Montgomery County — near Old Angler’s Inn, the I-495 overpass, and the old pumping station along the canal — with one in Washington near Fletcher’s Boat House and two others in Northern Virginia. Many of the remaining vents will be sealed off.

In October of last year, the American Canoe Association, the Canoe Cruisers Association, and the Potomac Conservancy filed suit against WASA in federal court, claiming that WASA failed to maintain the Interceptor in a way that is consistent with its EPA-issued National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit. The case was decided in WASA’s favor in March.

Initially the groups moved to appeal the decision, but “while it was under appeal, we decided recently to just go ahead and settle it and get out of the litigation,” Logan said. He said that the groups’ preference is to “work cooperatively” with WASA, but that the odor is still very much on the groups’ minds. “It’s not as if we’re giving up. When we settled the lawsuit, it’s not because we gave up or lost interest in this issue.”

UNDER THE TERMS of the settlement, "We withdraw the appeal, and they waive claims for certain fees that they had filed in court against," said Paul Sanford, director of public policy and stewardship for the American Canoe Association. In addition, the agreement required that "they would provide us with an up-to-date and complete outline of their plans for dealing with the odor issue," said Sanford, who worked on the litigation.

WASA's Web site addressing the Potomac Interceptor issue (www.potomacinterceptor.com) has not been updated since 2002, but Trypus said the organization has plans under way to bring the site up to date.

Sanford said that losing the lawsuit was disappointing but that the litigation still had positive effects. "We believe ... that the lawsuit did have the effect at least in part of encouraging WASA to deal with the issue." He added, "We certainly wish we had won. ... But we feel like it’s done some good, and we hope that this problem continues to be on WASA's radar screen."

Community members seem to share in Sanford's feelings. “Since those groups did not win the lawsuit, I hope that WASA doesn’t somehow take a more relaxed stance towards completing all of the stink cures” said Gray. “Certainly WASA’s been under a lot of pressure to deal with the lead contamination in D.C., but I just hope that they continue to make progress, because certainly we’ve had to deal with this for several years.” Gray said that his group would probably draft a letter urging WASA to move forward expediently, but he added, “It seems like the delays have been in good faith.”

Part of the problem is that the vent structures are topped with heavy slabs of concrete, so getting in to install or change a filter is no small task. "If it's necessary to bring heavy equipment out there to do something as simple as changing the filters, you can see why you don't get the change,” Sanford said. Logan agreed, “It was designed to fail."

For now, the stink stays. “I’ve waited 25 years to be able to walk down to the canal without having to breathe methane gas,” said Martin. “WASA doesn’t even care."

But Trypus says the project is on track. “I think WASA’s position is that this is a funded project and it will move forward,” Trypus said, noting that the organization had recently increased funding for the project to about $10 million. Said Logan, “I’m reasonably confident were going to get a solution. To me, it’s not a matter of if, but when.”