Historic Settlement: DC’s Century-Old Electric Company to Pay $57 Million to Clean Up Anacostia River
In a groundbreaking environmental settlement that marks a turning point for Washington D.C.‘s Anacostia River, the Potomac Electric Power Company (Pepco), an electric utility serving the region for over a century, will pay a staggering $57 million. This monumental settlement, announced by District of Columbia Attorney General Brian Schwalb, includes $47 million earmarked for the river’s cleanup and an additional $10 million in fines. It represents the largest environmental settlement in the district’s history.
For decades, the Anacostia River has endured persistent toxic pollution, transforming it into one of the most heavily altered and contaminated watersheds within the Chesapeake Bay region. This grim reality has been exacerbated by runoff and hazardous waste sites, culminating in a distressing legacy of pollution that has affected both the environment and the health of those living in the area.
The Anacostia River watershed, home to hundreds of thousands of residents, an array of fish species, and numerous bird species, has been plagued by hazardous waste sites. These sites have introduced heavy metals, pesticides, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the waterway. PCBs, industrial products banned in the United States since 1979, have been identified as carcinogens and are linked to a host of health issues in animals, including cancer and immune, reproductive, nervous, and endocrine system problems. In humans, they are classified as “probably human carcinogens.”
Remarkably, it can take decades for these harmful chemicals to break down naturally, causing long-lasting damage to the ecosystem. Attorney General Schwalb asserts that Pepco played a significant role in this environmental crisis. The company’s facilities, including Buzzard Point and Benning Road, along with their transformer vaults, have been linked to spills, equipment leaks, and the intentional release of petroleum and hazardous substances, including PCBs.
The Benning Road Facility, in operation from 1906 to 2012, has been under environmental investigation since 2011 due to pollutant releases into groundwater and soil. Similarly, Buzzard Point, operational since 1938, stands accused of releasing petroleum and other substances into the soil and groundwater over decades.
Notably, Pepco’s actions continued until 2013, when they were pumping pollutants from containment structures designed to prevent spills and leaks into storm sewers that ultimately flowed into the Anacostia River. This alarming practice persisted despite internal company policies expressly forbidding such discharges.
A pivotal pollution source lay hidden within approximately 60,000 underground Pepco transformer vaults, which frequently harbored polluted runoff. The company spent years channeling this contaminated water, rich in PCBs and petroleum, into sewers leading to rivers and streams.
Regrettably, the communities most impacted by Pepco’s illegal conduct were often those of color, residing East of the River. Attorney General Schwalb lamented that these communities bore the brunt of the company’s actions, endangering public health and safety while depriving residents of the river’s benefits.
In 2012, a study, partially funded by NOAA, revealed a grim truth: nearly 17,000 people living near the river were unaware of the hazards associated with consuming fish from its waters. The agency discouraged the consumption of eel, carp, or striped bass due to elevated levels of contaminants, disproportionately affecting Black, Latino, and Asian fishermen.
While Pepco played a substantial role in the river’s pollution, Attorney General Schwalb acknowledges that it is not solely responsible. Nevertheless, the utility company deserves recognition for formally accepting responsibility. As part of the settlement, Pepco will pay $10 million in civil penalties and contribute $47 million to facilitate the cleanup of the Anacostia River, a crucial step towards restoring the river’s health and safeguarding the communities it serves.
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