NGOs Sue U.S. Navy Over Water Quality Permit for Weapons Testing

NSWC Dahlgren has been firing rounds over the Potomac since this first shot on Oct. 16, 1918 (above, USN)

Published Jun 21, 2023 8:12 PM by The Maritime Executive

Two environmental groups are suing the U.S. Navy to force it to get water quality permits for its century-long use of the Potomac River for weapons testing. 

The Navy's weapons R&D establishment has used a 50-mile stretch of the Potomac for testing small arms, cannons, explosives and other naval weapons for decades, with activity led by the famed Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren. This essential center of expertise - known simply as "Dahlgren" inside the service - was set up during the First World War for testing long range cannon, and its site on the Potomac was selected for this purpose. It is home to nearly 5,000 experts in naval weaponry, and it has contributed to many of the most important advances in weaponry since WWII, including the development of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, the submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Tomahawk cruise missile and the Aegis Combat System. 

Dahlgren's original mission was testing and proofing naval guns by shooting them over the water. Over the decades, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council and Potomac Riverkeeper, Dahlgren and other naval test units have put at least 33 million pounds of shells, bombs and bullets into the river - but the Navy has never applied for a Clean Water Act permit for all the steel and lead, the two groups say. 

“We were shocked to discover the federal government is openly polluting this waterway without any kind of permit,” said Dean Naujoks of Potomac Riverkeeper in a statement. “We’re not asking the court to shut down weapons testing. We just want the Navy to get a permit under the Clean Water Act to ensure that their activities protect water quality, like everyone else has to do.”

The Navy has plans to expand the Potomac River Test Range, and the two groups say that it should be required to get a water quality permit and conduct regular water testing as a condition of use. After talking with the service about taking this step voluntarily, the Navy agreed to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service on a narrower question - the preservation of habitat for the endangered Atlantic Sturgeon, which uses the river as a spawning ground. However, the Navy has not voluntarily agreed to seek a Clean Water Act permit, according to NRDC and Potomac Riverkeeper. The groups have decided to file suit in a federal court, and are asking the court to find that the Navy is violating the Clean Water Act and must file for a discharge permit from Maryland state regulators.