FOX 5 Investigates: Potomac Interceptor - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG

FOX 5 Investigates: Potomac Interceptor


If you live or play along the Potomac River, you may have noticed there’s a bit of a stink about where that, um, smell is coming from.

“All the way down the canal I’ve smelled it.”

“Yea, I can describe it. Old socks.”

“I would say somewhere south of rotten eggs.”

“It just permeates everything.”

“There’s something wrong with this picture. Something wrong with this fragrance,” says David Soesz.

He’s been kayaking the Great Falls section of the Potomac River for 30 years and says the water, the trees, the bald eagles…its all ruined by that certain smell lingering in the air.

“It’s just awful,” says Soesz. “You have all this wonderful outdoors and then you’re followed around by this odor, this noxious odor. It’s just contemptible.”

The Chairman of Potomac Riverkeepers, Mac Thorton, agrees. “I started jogging when I moved to Cabin John and every quarter mile on my runs I would notice this odor.”

Thorton says it took him more than a year to figure out where the smell was coming from.

Like many, he first assumed it was stagnant water in the C & O Canal.

“It’s kind of shocking when you realize it’s not that,” says his neighbor Burr Gray. The President of the Cabin John Citizen’s Association says instead, “It’s sewage.”

According to DC Water and Sewer Authority (WASA), it all started in the 1960s when Congress ordered the construction of Dulles Airport.

A big airport creates a lot of sewage. So the Federal government built a sewer line from Dulles Airport to the Potomac River. It crosses just below Great Falls and runs south along the C & O Canal National Historical Park.

But remember, it was the sixties. The national park didn’t exist and DC didn’t have Home Rule. Instead, the Federal government ran the pipe along land it already owned to get all that sewage to the Blue Plains treatment facility in Anacostia.

Barry Lucas of DC Water says Virginia, Maryland and the District all contribute to what is now called the Potomac Interceptor.

“That smell is all of the collected waste from all of those communities,” says Lucas. “It’s a gravity sewer, so in order for flow to go somewhere, something has to come out. And the air comes out.”

The Interceptor was purposefully built to “vent” gas, and its accompanying smell as part of an engineering experiment. “The way the Interceptor is constructed it naturally vents, so along the entire length you'll find several hundred vents,” says Lucas.

Matthew Logan, the President of the C & O Canal Trust, says the vents release so much air, “it’s like a wind tunnel when you’re near it. But the smelliest, most disgusting wind tunnel you’ve ever experienced.”


Logan, Thorton and Gray took FOX 5 on a short hike to the vent causing all the stink in Cabin John.

The square, grey stone structure is about a foot wide and rises to your knees. This particular vent is hidden within trees and bushes between the canal’s towpath and the parking lot for Lock 10 on the Clara Barton Parkway.

Thorton says, “These sewers are made of the same substances as all the other sewers in the Washington area but this is the only one that is vented like this.”

With the help of a dozen other communities and organizations, they say it’s taken about 40 permits, 15 years and at least one lawsuit to eliminate the smell.

DC Water is now building four large structures along the C & O Canal that will eliminate the need for the old vents.

Lucas says, “We're constructing facilities which will draw the gases out of the sewer, treat it through a carbon tank and discharge it."


He says the Maryland side will finish in 2012. Virginia will be completed the following year.

“High time!” says David Soesz.

He says after waiting nearly a lifetime, he will finally be able to take a deep breath and appreciate the river the way nature intended.

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