George Hawkins is stepping down as head of DC Water, but he leaves at a moment when the agency is facing criticism over how they bill consumers for stormwater runoff.
Car washes, along with bake sales and silent auctions, are among the traditional techniques used to raise money for organizations. But some communities are clamping down on charity car washes because of concerns about how they impact the environment. Kojo explores the roots of the those concerns and how they’re affecting charitable efforts in our region.
- Michael Alison Chandler Reporter, Washington Post
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a fundraising technique that's every bit as tried and true as the bake sale or the silent auction, the charity car wash. But in northern Virginia some groups looking to raise money the grassroots way recently learned that car washes run afoul of environmental regulations. In Arlington County, Va. car washes are off the table for students because of new efforts to limit pollution flowing into local water sources.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIManaging storm water is one of the major components of program to clean up the Chesapeake Bay. Joining us to explore how car washes ended up getting caught into the broader conversation about the environmental health of the Chesapeake watershed is Michael Alison Chandler, reporter at the Washington Post. Michael Alison Chandler joins us from studios at the Post. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.
MS. MICHAEL ALISON CHANDLERHi, Kojo. Good to be here.
NNAMDIYou reported yesterday on a Boy Scout troop that was looking to raise money for a canoe trip. They wanted to organize a car wash in a church parking lot to raise the money for it. What was the answer they got?
CHANDLERWell, it turned out -- they had heard that there was a new regulation, in the school system actually, that was forbidding the future holding car washes on school property. So they looking into the regulations, they were curious about that. And they found out that actually the only car wash that you're allowed to have would be, like, in your own house for your own car.
NNAMDIWhat's the back story with these new stormwater regulations? Where did they come from and when did they go into effect?
CHANDLERSo Arlington County is actually the first jurisdiction in Virginia to receive one of these more stringent stormwater permits from the state. They do reflect increasing goals to clean up the Chesapeake Bay and the school system, actually, for the first time, got its own permit. The permits kind of map out a plan, a game plan, for how, you know, municipality or a school district plans to limit the amount of pollution that it's going to send into the stormwater system.
CHANDLERAnd these are going to roll out across the state over time, but Arlington's the first one to go. And that's why you're seeing some more surprising or, I guess, some more, you know, some more stringent requirements than we've seen in the past.
NNAMDIOur guest is Michael Alison Chandler. She's a reporter at The Washington Post. We're discussing banning car washes, being rolled out now in Arlington County, Va. But maybe soon to spread around the country. We are taking your calls at 800-433-8850. How do you feel about communities in our region clamping down on charity car washes for environmental reasons? Do you think it's wise or do you think it's an example of government overreach? Give us a call, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIOr send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. So, to be clear, this is about what happens with the water used in the car wash itself? These regulations are not about cutting down on water usage or anything like what states suffering droughts might have to contemplate, Michael?
CHANDLERExactly. So some states in the West have been cracking down on car washes for a long time, these kind of charitable car washes because of that issue, because they have water shortages. That's one of the main drivers. But here it really is a pollution issue. And the way it's been described to me is that when you have a whole bunch of cars in one day, they are washing in one place, all of the oil and grit and then the soap and the detergents, they all wash together right into -- they all go down the drain.
CHANDLERAnd because that -- the stormwater drains, that water isn't treated. It just goes directly into the watershed and the tributaries and the streams, which then flow into the Bay -- that it actually, it actually can be a big contributor to pollution. I mean, one, you know, one car wash or one charity car wash is probably not a big deal, but they are a pretty popular form of fundraiser. So collectively they have been cited as a concern in a lot of places.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned that one car wash won't do that much, and the fact that there are generally a lot of car washes taking place, because it brings me to what kind of pushback has there been to the clamp down on car washes? And if so, where's it coming from?
CHANDLERWell, so far I haven't seen -- it's so new that I haven't heard a lot back from community groups in Arlington. Of course, there's been talk among more -- in political circles or among conservative groups that this is an example of government overreach, as you say. But I think that has more to do with sort of a political conversation. I should say that in Arlington, all the officials that I talked to in the schools and on the county side, you know, they sort of made the point that they're really trying to educate people through this initiative.
CHANDLERSo it's not a crackdown that's going to come equipped with like a SWAT team or, you know, a big police force that's out there cruising for charity car washes. But it's -- they sort of see it -- particularly in the schools were you have a lot of young people who get organized around these kind of events, you know, just as an opportunity to say, hey, this is a popular way to raise money, but there's other ways to raise money. And here's what happens, you know, here's the effect on the watershed and on the Bay.
CHANDLERAnd here's why, you know, this is a source of pollution. So they see it more as a learning opportunity and a public awareness campaign, primarily. So I don't think they're trying to (unintelligible) behavior.
NNAMDIWell, you know, there are skeptics out there who are saying, yes. That's what they say now, but give it a couple of months or a few years and we're going to see cops breaking up car washes by church groups. You're saying that's not going to happen in the immediate future, huh?
CHANDLERI think that, you know, of course I posed that question to the county, sort of environmental watershed program manager. And, you know, he said, there is a protocol that you follow when you have regulations. And there's somebody that reports, you know, an illicit car wash, you know, there is a protocol that you follow and, you know, I think it starts with a warning.
CHANDLERAnd then you would, you know, if there was a repeated offender and an egregious offense, you know, there are fines and there are things that happen. But, you know, primarily, I think it starts with, you know, an education campaign, and reaching out and letting people know about these regulations.
NNAMDISee, there they go with the fines already. 800-433-8850. Here is Brian, in Alexandria, Va. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANHey, thanks, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. Well, I thought it was interesting. I saw the article yesterday. Like a lot of people I'm in -- my son is in a Boy Scout troop and we did have a -- well, we're in Alexandria, Va. -- we did have a car wash last year for purposes of raising money, like everybody else.
NNAMDIYou're going to jail, pal.
BRIANYeah, right. Well, I'm really -- see, I read this article and was just very skeptical of the whole thing. In our car wash -- and, again, we're a small troop and so we didn't have, you know, tons of cars lined around the block kind of thing, we were only open for, you know, three hours or so. I forget how many cars we washed, but we went through less than one bottle of the concentrated car wash stuff. You know, you don't need much. You know, 95 percent of was just water that we were just using on the cars and a little bit of the soap.
BRIANWith all the dilution involved -- we were obviously in a church parking lot, as well -- I just can't believe that -- when I think of everything that goes in the storm sewage -- storm system -- and I've lived near a watershed. I'm part of a parks group and we clean up the streams. I think of all the other stuff that's going in there, this miniscule amount of soap -- and I think even the soap, the car wash that we used, came with a, you know, soluble…
BRIANIt was the better kind of stuff that is not going to harm the environment kind of thing -- that this, you know, less than a bottle's worth over, you know, multiple hours diluted 90-something percent with all the other water that went into -- I'm just highly skeptical that that would have any harm, again, in context of everything else that's going down, when you look at the, you know, every time it rains and the oils and the car drippings that go off the roads into the system, water system, this one day…
BRIANWe had one car wash last year -- that that is -- and we're planning it -- we were planning to do another one this month sometime. So it'll be interesting to see what our troop talks about this week.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned what your troop talks about, Brian. Because that's what this effort seems to be all about. Michael Alison, your piece yesterday was mostly about Arlington. But what is it and what are other school jurisdictions in the region telling their students?
CHANDLERI think elsewhere -- because Arlington's first I definitely haven't seen anybody else, you know, making -- trying to enforce or stop charity car washes right now. I did -- and I don't think there's a lot of awareness about the issue. Even in Arlington, yeah, there were a lot of groups that hadn't heard about the change. So I, you know, I'm very -- I was very curious to see whether this was going to lead to, you know, a ban on car washes elsewhere. And so far I haven't heard any other sort of, you know, jurisdictions say that they definitely are going to go that way.
CHANDLERBut there's still, like, in sort of these lengthy negotiation processes over these permits. And I, you know, I think we will see more awareness about the issue, in general. A lot of counties, if you go, if you do a little research about, you know, car wash or environmentally friendly ways to do car washes. They are already have information up about that. They usually recommend that you wash cars on a field because the water can be filtered through the soil and it doesn't go right down the storm drain. So they try to find other ways to do it.
CHANDLEROh, they often recommend partnering with a commercial car wash because they use recycled water. So I think the caller made a good point, which is that, you know, surely, this short, you know, this is very -- one small part of the runoff that environmentalists are concerned about.
NNAMDIBut there are questions about that. Brian, thank you very much for your call. Questions about that. Let's go to Chris, in Alexandria, Va. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISYes. You -- with all this talk about amateur car washes, what about professional car washes? Are they facing regulations?
NNAMDIDid you learn anything, Michael Alison, about the commercial car washes and the permitting process they have to go through that proves that they're not sending harmful things into our water system?
CHANDLERI did learn a little bit and I think there was big push a while ago -- I don't know when -- to clean up commercial car washes. So they do have a separate permitting process. And I believe the system they use does recycle the water. So I don't know exactly how it works, but it is considered, generally, a much cleaner way to wash cars.
NNAMDIChris, thank you very much for your call. On to Mark, in Alexandria, Va. Mark, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARKHey, thank you for your time. Listen, I think this is totally government overreach because instead of giving money to this cute Boy Scout troop, I'm going to do it in front of my house and that same water and soap is going to go down the drain. This is just ridiculous that they're worrying about such things that affect kids' charities. You know, them going to camp and all that. So that's all I had to say.
NNAMDIWell, before you go, one of the things we did learn about this from Michael Alison Chandler's reporting, is that you are permitted to do this in front of your house, but, Michael Alison, Mark raises a good question. If he's allowed to do in front of his house, why stop the Boy Scout troops from having charity car washes?
CHANDLERWell, I think the permits, again, are going to be different where you are. It's possible that some -- I think a lot of them wouldn't explicitly address car -- they might not explicitly address car washes at all. So it's going to depend on where you are and what happens. I mean, you know, this is why it's a tough issue, because I think a lot of people definitely have sympathies with these groups of young people who are, you know, trying to do something good. So it's not seen as…
CHANDLERIt's not the automatic target for a lot of groups.
NNAMDIAllow me to interrupt for a second, because I'd like Mark to have a dialogue with Stan. Mark, I'm going to put you on hold while you listen to what Stan, in Silver Spring, Md., has to say. And have you respond. Stan, you're now on the air. Go ahead, please.
STANHi. Thank you, Kojo. Yes. My daughter has been telling me for years not to wash my car in front of my house on the street. And make sure I wash it on the yard because all the heavy metals, that break dust and so forth that settles on my car from driving on the Beltway, will wash into my lawn and be absorbed and so forth. Now, I like the solution in yesterday's paper that says to have charities partner with local car washes, where they can have a take from the profits of the car wash costs. And the kids can still participate by drying off the cars after they come out of the wash.
NNAMDIAllow me to hear what Mark, in Alexandria, has to say about that. Mark, are you still going to be washing your car on the street after what Stan's daughter said?
MARKWell, after every heavy rain it pushes all those metals onto the street anyway. I think the keyword here is permit. This is just taking money from charities for the government. And it's just one of those things. It just makes the government look pretty ridiculous and petty if they're going to take money out of a Boy Scout troop or some guy wanting to go to camp. You know, this is -- so anyway. That's all I have to say.
MARKI love your show.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Mark. Michael Alison, what's the Boy Scout troop you reported on going to do now? Is it going to be moving into another area of fundraising?
CHANDLERWell, I think they were considering some kind of, like a flea market. But they apparently really make a lot of money with their Christmas tree sales. So they have some reserves that they are able to dip into for their canoe trip.
NNAMDIStan, thank you very much for participating in our dialogue with Mark. Your daughter seems to have her head deep into the environmental movement.
STANYes. I think this is just a matter of culture change, where we're learning all the various ways to keep the Chesapeake Bay cleaner.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We move on to Rodger, in Arlington, Va. Rodger, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RODGERThank you. My question is has the Arlington County staff, which has identified this presumably as a significant source of pollution, identified other areas of runoff that might yield a better and cleaner environment? I mean, are Boy Scouts -- are car washes, charity car washes the top of the most polluting source of pollution? Or are there other sources which might -- if we address those, have a better result for the environment and the runoff?
NNAMDIMichael Alison Chandler?
CHANDLERTerrific question. And no. I'm sure that car washes are not at the top of their priority pile. And there are other, like, and bigger sources of pollution. I'm not sure exactly what is included in the sort of most-pressing priorities for Arlington. But, you know, things that jurisdictions look at, you know, have to do with, you know, parking lots and getting more permeable surfaces there or making sure they have, you know, green shrubs and lawn around them to absorb runoff or, you know, focusing on green roofs so water isn't running off all of the sort of buildings.
CHANDLERAnd roadways, of course, are a big sources of runoff. So there's different, yeah, there's lots of different areas of focus. This is really just scratching the surface.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. We move on…
NNAMDIWe move on now to Tony, in Reston, Va. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TONYHey, Kojo. I just wanted to put in a comment about this car wash issue. I believe that the issue is not so much the detergents that are used in the car-washing process. And I think a previous caller had expressed some skepticism about the deleterious effects of the detergents that are -- that get diluted so much. I think a lot of it is the chlorine that's in the treated water. You know, the water that's used for these car washes is chlorinated. Unlike the water that we use in our homes that goes to the sewer treatment where the chlorine is taken out before it gets dumped back into the rivers.
TONYIn the storm drain, that chlorine goes directly into our water that eventually works its way to the Chesapeake Bay. And that's what I think a lot of the -- this regulation is aimed at, is minimizing the chlorinated water that goes into the Bay that is harmful.
NNAMDIMichael Alison, is that the education that the county is trying to provide to young people?
CHANDLERYeah, I think the chlorinated water is a piece of it. Also the petroleum products and sometimes heavy metals that are sort of in the grime that's on the car that gets kind of washed off of the car. From what I understand, detergents, a lot of the detergents on the market are now sort of considered cleaner or biodegradable. So the detergents are less of an issue from what I understand.
NNAMDIAnd here is Paul, in Leesburg, Va. Paul, you are now on the air. Go ahead, please.
PAULThank you. I just wanted to call in response to the person who was thinking that it was a blatant money grab to have permits. I think the biggest difference between washing your car in front of your house and having a charity is volume. Whatever risks you have in a single car wash, if you're washing 20, 30, 40, 150, 3000 cars, they're magnified. If the government puts a permit on it and allows it to happen, that money could, at least in theory, go into extra reclamation efforts or extra purification efforts or other things to offset the impact.
NNAMDIOkay. Paul, thank you very much for making your comment. And, Michael Alison Chandler, thank you very much for joining us.
CHANDLERThanks for having me.
NNAMDIMichael Alison Chandler is a reporter at the Washington Post. "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, and Elizabeth Weinstein. Brendan Sweeney is the managing producer. Our engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Podcasts of all shows, audio archives and free transcripts are available at our website, kojoshow.org. If you'd like to share questions or comments with us, email at email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or send a tweet, @kojoshow. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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