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D.C. churches forced to close due to skyrocketing water disposal fees


Brownpau | CC BY 2.0

John Burger - published on 08/02/18

Parishes tend to have more runoff due to parking lots, so they have to pay more.

When it rains, it pours. In Washington, D.C., when it rains, people pay.

And now, some are charging that religious institutions, which are non-profit organizations, are paying more than is fair.

Due to a federal agency’s requirement that the District of Columbia clean up the way it disposes of ground water run-off, DC Water, the agency responsible for disposal of waste, is building a $2.7 billion underground tunnel system .The old system, dating back to the Civil War era, handled rainwater and sewage in the same infrastructure. When it rained too much, sewage ended up in the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

DC Water completed the tunnel system’s first leg in March. A month later, during the first major rainstorm, “the new tunnel prevented approximately 170 million gallons of combined sewage and storm water from being discharged to the Anacostia River,” said a DC Water statement.

In an attempt to be fair, DC Water, the agency overseeing the upgrade, is charging property owners a Clean Rivers Impervious Area Charge, or CRIAC, based on the percentage of land they own that is impermeable. The idea is that if more rainwater runs off your property because of pavement or concrete, you should pay more toward the new system that’s going to dispose of that runoff.

But some properties that have a lot of impervious land, such as large parking lots, happen to be houses of worship. They are in many cases already stretched to pay the bills and maintain their various ministries.

Craig Muckle, manager of public policy for the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, and the Rev. George C. Gilbert of Holy Trinity United Baptist Church told the Washington Times that 30 D.C. churches of various denominations have either left the district or closed down since the fees skyrocketed. St. Paul’s Rock Creek Church, founded more than three centuries ago, is barely hanging on.

“They’ve cut back on quite a number of staff,” said Muckle, who leads a coalition of churches, synagogues and cemeteries called DC RIVER (Religious Institutions Valuing Environmental Responsibility). DC RIVER is lobbying DC Water and the D.C. Council to reduce the CRIAC burden on the faith community.

In an interview, Muckle said there has recently been lobbying for a bill that would require DC Water to go before some kind of public service commission when considering rates increases for CRIAC.

“It wasn’t necessarily intended to prevent them from charging that but basically to provide some transparency to the matter,” he said. “We want to make the distinction that the body we’re recommending would not have the authority necessarily to overturn the rates but require that DCW would make a fair and accurate presentation on what they need to charge, largely because at this point there’s very little transparency.

Muckle said the faith community has never asked for any exemptions—”largely because we want to follow Laudato Si,” Pope Francis’ encyclical on care for the environment, “and that our desire to pay is part of our obligation to care for God’s creation.”

He suggested that some parishes might use proceeds from a DC City Council-approved relief fund, to help property owners who are struggling with the new fees, to pay for environment-friendly upgrades like solar panels. But that fund, which was originally proposed at about $12 million, has been reduced by about $3 million.

“We don’t think the funding that they’ve set aside for the faith community is going to make a significant difference,” Muckle said, citing one parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Southeast Washington, that has reduced some ministries due a CRIAC assessment of “close to $50,000 a year.”

And fees have shot up over the past five years, from about $2 per unit of assessment to about $26, he said.

“For our archdiocese, we have 38 parishes in the city,” he said. “We believe that just from our parishes alone, we pay $750,000 in CRIAC fees. That’s not including the cemetery or other properties we may own in the city.”

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