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Shooting Weapons Into the Potomac: Groups Sue Navy for Failure to Get Clean Water Act Permit

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WASHINGTON, DC — Potomac Riverkeeper Network (PRKN) and NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council) filed a lawsuit [this week] against the U.S. Navy in federal court in Maryland over violations of the Clean Water Act.

The U.S. Navy uses a long stretch of the Potomac River, 53 miles south of Washington DC, and a facility alongside it, in Dahlgren, Virginia, to conduct a wide range of weapons testing. The testing takes place on land, in laboratories and in the Potomac River itself. This is the nation’s largest over-the-water gun-firing range.

“We were shocked to discover the federal government is openly polluting this waterway without any kind of permit,” said Dean Naujoks, Potomac Riverkeeper.

“And it is staggering to consider the volume of munitions that have already gone into the river. It’s cause for concern for anyone who uses the river for boating or fishing—for business or recreation.

“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.”

Throughout a 51 nautical mile stretch of river designated part of the Potomac River Test Range, the Navy fires small arms and large-caliber guns, detonates explosives, and tests lasers, propellants, and targeting systems.

The Navy has been conducting this activity for decades and has discharged more than 33 million pounds of munitions into the Potomac. These munitions contain toxic metals, solvents, explosives, and other potentially harmful constituents.

Yet the program has never been regulated by a Clean Water Act permit, as required. Moreover, the Navy recently announced that it was planning to expand the Potomac River Test Range, to allow it to conduct weapons testing activities in more of the river. A Clean Water Act permit would ensure that pollution from the Navy’s weapons testing does not violate water quality standards established to protect the Potomac River. It would also require the Navy to conduct frequent water quality monitoring and report the results publicly.

PRKN has registered its concerns about the expansion with the Navy and has called for the Navy to evaluate and disclose harm to the environment and other impacts, and to meaningfully consult with the public on its intended expansion. Watermen, recreational anglers and commercial watercraft operators have an interest in this important public resource.

After providing the Navy with notice and seeking its voluntary compliance with the Clean Water Act, PRKN and NRDC are now asking a court to declare that the Navy is violating the law through unpermitted discharges of pollution into the Potomac River, and to direct the Navy to secure a Clean Water Act permit. Upon request by PKRN and NRDC, the Navy previously agreed to voluntarily initiate consultation with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) over potential harms to the habitat for the endangered Atlantic sturgeon, which spawns and migrates in these waters.

A copy of the complaint is posted here.

NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Established in 1970, NRDC uses science, policy, law, and people power to confront the climate crisis, protect public health, and safeguard nature. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, Beijing and Delhi (an office of NRDC India Pvt. Ltd). Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

Potomac Riverkeeper Network is a registered 501(c)3 non-profit organization with three regional Waterkeeper branches: Potomac Riverkeeper, Upper Potomac Riverkeeper, and Shenandoah Riverkeeper. Our mission is to protect the public’s right to clean water in the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and their tributaries. We stop pollution to enhance the safety of our drinking water, protect healthy river habitats, and enhance public use and enjoyment.


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