U.S. Navy Settles Water-Pollution Lawsuit Over its Potomac Test Range

A naval weapons test on the Potomac (NRDC)

Published Jan 10, 2024 8:40 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy has agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by two environmental nonprofits over its use of the lower Potomac River, where it has operated a live-fire testing range for more than 100 years. 

In a consent decree finalized in federal court on Wednesday, the Navy agreed to apply for a state water quality permit from the state of Maryland for its use of the waters of the Potomac. The permit would satisfy the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, and would mean that the Navy would have to abide by state water quality standards and carry out monitoring to ensure its compliance. 

The Navy estimates that between 1918-2007, its Dahlgren test center fired more than 33 million pounds of shells and ammunition into a 50-mile stretch of the Potomac River. Some of the materials deposited into the waterway during these live-fire tests may be hazardous, like heavy metals, explosives solvents, according to the NRDC. In the most concentrated area of activity on the river, the cumulative impact amounts to about 70,000 rounds per square mile (of various munitions).

An unidentified rocket recovered from the waters of the Potomac (NRDC)

Environmental advocates say that the Potomac test range includes spawning grounds for the endangered Atlantic sturgeon, and the effect of the activity on the fish's habitat is not known. Until now, the Navy's weapons-test discharges into the Potomac were not regulated, though the Clean Water Act has been applied to other Navy weapons-test sites for decades.

The Natural Resources Defense Council filed suit last summer to compel the Navy to obtain a discharge permit from the State of Maryland, and the Navy and Department of Justice moved quickly into settlement negotiations. In the consent decree announced this week, the Navy has promised to apply for a permit within 30 days and provide regular disclosures of its progress. In return, NRDC and fellow plaintiff Potomac Riverkeeper have agreed not to sue the service over any unregulated "discharges of munitions or chemical or biological simulants" in the next two years, while the permit application is in process. 

The Navy has encountered a series of public challenges related to water quality over the past three years. It is still working to address the tank farm spill that contaminated drinking water supplies for servicemembers at Pearl Harbor in 2021, and has had to remediate a firefighting-foam discharge on the same site. On Monday, in the latest setback, the service's Pearl Harbor sewage plant lost power and released two million gallons of partially-treated sewage just offshore.