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The E. coli pollution limits approved by the Environmental Protection Agency for the Anacostia River, Potomac River, Rock Creek and their tributaries in the District of Columbia violate the Clean Water Act, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled Monday. 

The court’s decision means the maximum amount of fecal bacteria pollution allowed in those bodies of water will have to be changed within a year so that rivers and tributaries are safe for people to canoe, kayak and fish in. 

The ruling stems from a 2016 lawsuit filed by Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization, on behalf of the Anacostia Riverkeeper, the Kingman Park Civic Association, and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network. 

“This is a major victory not just for the regional environment, but most importantly, for all those across the metropolitan area who use these rivers for livelihood and recreation,” said Earthjustice attorney Seth Johnson. “We have long said the current limits fail to ensure the District’s water quality standards are met. This violates the law, and means men, women and children have been at risk of serious illness.”

E. coli is a type of fecal bacteria that is used as an indicator of the presence of harmful illness-causing pathogens in rivers and creeks. Exposure to these pathogens in water can cause vomiting, indigestion, diarrhea and fever, as well as earaches, pink eye, rashes and skin infections.

Bacteria concentrations in the rivers and creeks of D.C. exceed standards as often as 42% of the time, Johnson said. 

Sources of pollution to these waterways include the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant, which treats sewage from Washington D.C. and several suburban areas, and discharges into the Potomac. 

In addition, the combined sewage overflow system connected with Blue Plains dumps untreated raw sewage into outfalls along both the Potomac and Anacostia during storms.

Potomac Riverkeeper Dean Naujoks said the court’s ruling was a significant victory for clean water in the region. Naujoks is a part of the Potomac Riverkeeper Network, a non-profit environmental organization. 

“The public has a right to clean water, and the public has a right to know when it’s safe to go in the river,” Naujoks said. “It’s more of a health issue than people realize when you have high levels of E. coli and other bacteria in the water.”

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