D.C. Ban on Pavement Sealants Helps Clean Waterways

The District of Columbia City Council voted Dec. 16 to ban the use of harmful coal tar sealants on paved surfaces. Runoff from the sealants carries toxic chemicals into the metro-area’s stormwater system, harming fish and posing health risks to people.

“Every time it rains, stormwater gushes through the streets and alleys of D.C., carrying trash, fertilizer, animal droppings, and a fetid mix of toxic pollutants into our nearby waterways. On top of that, sewage pipes overflow and dump bacteria, viruses, and other dangerous pollutants into the water," said Nancy Stoner, director of the Clean Water Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“This [Comprehensive Stormwater Management Enhancement Amendment Act of 2008] will reduce contaminated stormwater, one of the major sources of pollution that pours into the Anacostia River, the Potomac River and Rock Creek, and the Chesapeake Bay. The ban helps reverse the degradation of metro-area waterways to make them safer for our kids to swim and for fish to live.”

Coal tar sealants contain high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known as PAHs, which can significantly harm waterways. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has determined that the unusually high levels of PAHs in contaminated sediments in the Anacostia River is one of the causes of the high incidence of cancer and tumors in fish in the river. Studies by the U.S. Geological Survey have also demonstrated that runoff from coal tar sealants carries toxins into waterways that can cause cancer in fish.

In addition to banning the sealants, the legislation helps pay for cleanup and provides a credit for city property owners who help restore metro waterways by installing rain gardens, green roofs, or permeable pavement.

This bill was the result of a collaborative effort, known as the D.C. Stormwater Task Force, which was chaired by Councilmember Jim Graham and D.C. Department of the Environment Director George Hawkins, and included the participation of the D.C. Building Industry Association and the D.C. Apartment and Office Building Association. Councilmember Mary Cheh also championed a ban on the toxic sealants.