Recently, I was pleased to accept the 2011 Environmental Leadership Award from the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. I’m personally honored, having run watershed organizations in the past and being very familiar with the Alliance’s great work. Moreover, I am well aware that no personal honor can come except when many people have worked together to a common goal. I have been blessed to work side by side with some wonderful and talented people throughout my career – and share any honor I receive with them.
But to me, the award has another and perhaps a more significant meaning. It means the proper recognition of the work my 1,100-strong team does as environmental stewardship.
For years, environmentalists and regulators viewed wastewater treatment plants, such as the one I operate, as “polluters.” It is easy to attack what’s easy to see, and the world’s largest advanced wastewater treatment plant is indeed the Chesapeake Bay’s largest point source. However, Blue Plains and similar facilities aren’t producing pollution at all, as a plant that makes cars or cameras would. Instead, we take what the water that society has used in their bathrooms, kitchens, washing machines, car washes and everything else, and cleanse it out their behalf, ultimately recycling water back into the environmental while preventing the pollutants we remove from contaminating the receiving water body. We are the original recycling operation and do more to green any place we exist than any other single enterprise. But we are no more a polluter than everyone and anyone who discharges to us — which is everyone who lives, works and visit the Washington DC region!
This change in perspective is most welcome. Environmental advocates and those of us in the water and wastewater business can be powerful allies on the next significant pollution-control front: nonpoint sources. Blue Plains could reduce its nitrogen and phosphorus outputs to zero, and the health of the Chesapeake Bay would still be impaired from farm field and parking lot runoff. The costs of doing are not even calculable at the present time. Yet we know the more significant sources are no longer our wastewater treatment, I mean water reclamation, plants.
Meanwhile, the costs of that reduction would be hard to contemplate. The existing regulatory and legal framework governing DC Water means my customers are already facing $100 monthly water and sewer bills by the end of this decade. Reducing nutrients from 15 milligrams per liter to 5 milligrams per liter cost us $100 million. Going from 5 to 4 milligrams per liter costs almost $1 billion dollars. That is ten times the cost for one tenth the protection. There are much cheaper and more equitable ways to reduce pollutants — which will also enable us to achieve the next level of protection. So I believe it’s time for a wholesale re-examination of clean water issues – including who should be responsible for paying for what and when.
I welcome our customers, as well as our friends at the Alliance, into that conversation.