Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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You really don’t want to touch river water in D.C., if a new lawsuit has any merit.

It claims levels of the fecal bacteria E. coli are dangerously high, and that the Environmental Protection Agency actually “approved” these maximum thresholds. The suit notes that fecal bacteria can cause “vomiting, indigestion, diarrhea, and fever, as well as earaches, pink eye, rashes, and skin infections.” 

Attorneys for the environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice submitted a civil complaint to the U.S. District Court for D.C. Monday on behalf of three local nonprofits that use and advocate for the city’s rivers. Anacostia Riverkeeper, the Kingman Park Civic Association, and the Potomac Riverkeeper Network are suing the EPA for approving “total maximum daily loads”—or TMDLs— of E. coli in the Anacostia River, the Potomac River, Rock Creek, and their tributaries, and for failing to meet safe water quality standards.

“These pollution caps don’t protect against short-term spikes in fecal bacteria concentrations” such as after rainfall, Earthjustice staff attorney Jessica Chavez explains in a statement. “This violates the District’s water quality standards, and it keeps people at risk of serious illness.”

In fact, the suit claims fecal bacteria concentrations in local waters violate standards as often as 42 percent of the time. The below data is based on D.C.’s 2014 water quality report to Congress:

Credit: Screenshot via lawsuit

Credit: Screenshot via lawsuit

Though the District acknowledged 20 years ago that its bodies of water were unsafe for “human-contact recreation” (like swimming), the groups allege that no bodies of water are currently up to par. They’re hoping the court will declare the EPA’s approval of D.C.’s max loads “unlawful and arbitrary” and direct the federal government to change standards within a year. 

The EPA doesn’t comment on pending litigation. The full document is available here.