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Company to pay over $50 million in largest environmental lawsuit settlement in D.C. history: 'Health risks to the public'

A 2012 study found that nearly half of the 34,000 people were unaware of the dangers of eating fish from the river.

A 2012 study found that nearly half of the 34,000 people were unaware of the dangers of eating fish from the river.

Photo Credit: iStock

In the largest environmental lawsuit settlement in Washington, D.C. history, the Potomac Electric Power Company (commonly known as Pepco) will pay out more than $57 million — over $47 million to clean up the river it polluted and another $10 million in fines.

What happened?

D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb recently announced the settlement, saying that Pepco would pay for "persistent toxic pollution" of the Anacostia River, which runs through D.C. and Maryland.

CBS News reported that Pepco, which has operated in the area for a century, previously ran two facilities on the river, Buzzard Point and Benning Road, that, according to the Attorney General, "resulted in spills, equipment leaks, and intentional releases of petroleum and hazardous substances."

Those other hazardous substances included polychlorinated biphenyls, which were banned in 1979, per CBS, and which the Environmental Protection Agency considers "probable human carcinogens."

The Benning Road Facility was operational from 1906 to 2012. The government began overseeing an investigation of the facility in 2011, shortly before it shut down. The other facility, Buzzard Point, was accused of spilling or intentionally discharging its pollutants into the river.

What happens now?

It is certainly a good thing that Pepco is being made to pay to help clean up the river it intentionally (per the attorney general's office) discharged toxic chemicals into (going against its own stated policy in the process). Unfortunately, though, none of that money will go to the human victims of its crimes.

A 2012 study partially funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that nearly half of the people living near the Anacostia were unaware of the dangers of eating fish from the river and that about 17,000 could be eating the contaminated fish.

"The report uncovered further evidence that many local fishermen — who were disproportionately African American, Latino, or Asian — are catching, eating, and sharing potentially contaminated fish with family, friends, and others, greatly expanding the possible long-term health risks to the public," a website summary of the study read.

This is yet another example of environmental racism, which the Natural Resources Defense Council defines as "the intentional siting of polluting and waste facilities in communities primarily populated by African Americans, Latines, Indigenous People, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, migrant farmworkers, and low-income workers."

While this settlement goes toward fighting environmental racism in the future, to many of its victims, immense harm has already been done.

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