Alexandria is polluting Potomac River with cancer-causing chemicals, lawsuit says An old gas plant from the 1850s left a legacy of pollution on the shores of the Potomac River. A lawsuit filed by the Potomac Riverkeeper alleges the city isn't doing enough to clean it up.
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Alexandria is polluting Potomac River with cancer-causing chemicals, lawsuit says

An oily sheen in debris-filled water in Alexandria, Virginia. /Potomac Riverkeeper Network hide caption

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/Potomac Riverkeeper Network

The city of Alexandria, Virginia, has allowed toxic chemicals to discharge into the Potomac River for more than 45 years, and has not taken action to fix the problem, according to a new lawsuit by the Potomac Riverkeeper Network.

"The city of Alexandria owns this pollution," says Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks. "We want them to fix the contamination problems that they've created."

The source of the problem can be traced back to the mid-19th century. Before the advent of electricity, many communities, including Alexandria, had factories that used coal to produce natural gas — relied on at the time for household energy needs from lighting to heating to cooking.

The Alexandria manufactured gas plant was located in Old Town, near where Oronoco St. ends at the waterfront. Between 1851 and 1946, the plant powered the city with coal-derived natural gas. In the process, it released plenty of air pollution — but even worse, it left behind a legacy of soil and groundwater contaminated with coal tar that has yet to be remediated more than 75 years after the plant closed. That pollution now gets into the river via a stormwater pipe that discharges at the northern end of Founders Park.

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Coal tar and other byproducts from manufactured gas plants contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, according to the EPA. Many of these chemicals are considered by health agencies to be probable human carcinogens.

There are between 3,000 and 5,000 old manufactured gas plant sites around the country, according to the EPA.

The discharges from the pipe began after the gasworks site was redeveloped in the 1970s, replaced by townhouses and offices. In the course of redevelopment, a new stormwater pipe was put in adjacent to the old gas plant, to drain rainfall from the streets into the river. But along the way, the pipe picked up pollution from the gas plant, discharging toxic chemicals along with the stormwater.

The first discharges were reported in 1975, according to the city. Work to fix the problem started after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Coast Guard notified the city it must immediately address the ongoing releases. Alexandria then entered into a voluntary remediation program with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

But according to the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Alexandria earlier this month, the city's fixes so far haven't worked.

"They promised that they would fix it and we still have all these problems and it hasn't been resolved," says Naujoks. "We just feel like we had to take action on this."

Naujoks says his group first met with Alexandria officials about the issue in 2016.

"They asked us to work with them in a proactive way. We agreed to do that. Unfortunately, now they've dragged this process out," he says.

Andrea Blackford, a spokesperson for Alexandria, said city staff is reviewing the lawsuit filed by the Potomac Riverkeeper Network. "The city is surprised by the PRKN's action because Alexandria has worked very closely with both the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and the PRKN on the city's efforts to remediate the remnants of contamination that occurred at this site," Blackford wrote in an email to DCist.

Blackford noted that Alexandria "has implemented the approved remedial measures in accordance with the approved schedules," as part of the voluntary remediation program with the state.

But the suit contends those remedial measures aren't sufficient and argues that the city is in violation of the Clean Water Act for its ongoing pollution of the Potomac, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for mishandling toxic waste.

The city touts numerous steps it has taken over the past two decades to get the chemicals out of the river. For example, starting in 2000, the city installed floating booms to contain and absorb the contamination near the pipe outfall. To clean up the river bottom, the city dredged up contaminated sediment and capped the area with clean sand in 2018.

But according to the suit, the booms have been destroyed by debris and not maintained, and the sediment has been re-contaminated by ongoing discharges.

The lawsuit is seeking a permanent injunction requiring Alexandria to "abate its pollution-causing conduct," as well as to remediate the pollution present in the river.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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