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Potomac River

Inter-jurisdictional Water Pollution Management

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asked the Department of Justice (DOJ) to file a lawsuit against nine state and local governments. The lawsuit sought to stop a massive regional water treatment plant from discharging unpermitted amounts of pollutants into the Potomac River and unlawfully disposing of sludge generated by this pollution. The suit asked the court to order each government defendant to take responsibility for their share of the pollution and sludge disposal.

Issues and Goals

The Blue Plains Advanced Water Treatment Plant is the largest advanced wastewater treatment plant in the world. At the time of this lawsuit, Montgomery, Fairfax, and Prince George’s County as well as the District of Columbia (D.C.) all used this treatment plant.

EPA representatives discovered that after heavy rainfall, levels of suspended solids and fecal bacteria in the Potomac River usually exceeded permitted limits. They also found that elevated flow in the river caused the treatment plant to exceed its capacity and improperly discharge untreated sewerage effluent (liquid waste) into the Potomac.

As the plant owner/operator, the D.C. government periodically increased the levels of biologic and chemical treatment to counteract the increased pollutant loads. This also kept the plant within the effluent limits of its permit. However, this process often led to increased sewerage sludge production. This was problematic both because the region lacked adequate sludge disposal facilities and because it violated the Clean Water Act. Additionally, if the plant failed to add these chemicals and biological treatment, it would violate its discharge permit.

Based on these discoveries, the DOJ filed a lawsuit on behalf of the EPA against these state, regional and local jurisdictions. The lawsuit sought to prevent the water treatment plant from exceeding its capacity and causing point-source pollution in the Potomac River.

Following the court’s direction and a few day-long meetings, the DOJ drafted and the nine governmental bodies signed a consent decree in order to avoid an extended trial. This was a single document reflecting their collective understanding of the pollution control and sludge disposal agreement.


This case involved in-depth science and complex regional political issues. Two years after the initial consent decree was signed, I served as Prince George’s County’s attorney for Clean Water Act issues related to pollution in the Potomac River. The DOJ filed motions to enforce the consent decree. After a hearing, the federal district judge declined to issue a ruling on the motion. Instead, the judge asked the attorneys for the nine jurisdictions to hold meetings in the jury room and develop a clear agreement to solve the water pollution and sludge disposal issue.

Based on this multi-party negotiation, I helped break down the responsibilities for each party charged with violating pollution control and sludge disposal provisions in both the Clean Water Act and the subsequent consent decree.

As part of this leadership role, I also reached out to representatives of the parties in the settlement who did not attend the settlement meetings. The goal in doing this was to ensure that everyone was on the same page about the roles and responsibilities of each party to solve the region-wide sludge problem.

My role in this process went beyond advocacy for Prince George’s County. I also explored new measures the County could take to create additional options for other government entities involved in the settlement. While not serving as a formal court-appointed facilitator, I played an informal but integral role in establishing a settlement that was agreeable to all of the parties.


Helping the parties reach this settlement avoided high-profile and lengthy litigation in the nation’s capitol. Also, D.C. and both Maryland counties increased capacity and developed new methods to dispose of their respective “share” of sludge. This reduced the chance that increased treatment levels at Blue Plains would produce excess sludge and water pollution.

As part of the settlement, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the EPA, and D.C. all increased funding for research on advanced sewerage treatment. The research funded by these governmental bodies specifically focused on ways to minimize the production of toxic sludge and dispose of it more safely and efficiently.