Groups and Citizens Unite to Ask for a Healthy Anacostia River That's Free of Toxic Pollution

Yesterday, enjoying the chance to get outside on one of the nicer days D.C. has seen in a while, I walked down the block from my office to attend a lunchtime brown-bag panel discussion hosted by the DC Environmental Network. The topic of the briefing was a new initiative aimed at restoring the Anacostia River and remediating its shameful history of toxic contamination.

The meeting room was packed with a standing room only crowd that had come from across the city to hear from former District of Columbia mayor Anthony Williams and other speakers from the local environmental community. Mayor Williams particularly inspired the assembled guests by describing the Anacostia as something that’s too often seen as a dividing line – between wealthy and rich neighborhoods, between white and African American communities – when it can and should be seen instead as a beautiful resource that unites us.

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  • The Anacostia, seen from above, as it flows toward downtown D.C. Photo courtesy of the District Department of the Environment.

In my work for NRDC on the Anacostia, I’ve mostly focused on the ongoing problem of stormwater runoff pollution (which I’ve blogged about here and here, for example, in the context of the District’s storm sewer permit from EPA), so I haven’t had much exposure to the problems of toxic “legacy” pollution in the river – contamination that was created years ago but remains in the ecosystem today. As a result, I was shocked to hear stories about people eating fish caught in the river that are full of tumors and lesions, and to see old pictures of trash being burned at the Kenilworth Park Landfill, right on the river’s banks.

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  • Open burning at the Kenilworth Park Landfill, on the banks of the Anacostia, 1967. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

Sadly, toxic pollution has been a part of the Anacostia’s history since the late 19th century. Back in those days, and continuing until well into the mid-20th century, privately-owned industries, government manufacturing sites, and municipal facilities like trash dumps and vehicle service yards located near the Anacostia dumped toxic chemicals along the riverbanks and into the river itself. These chemicals included nasty stuff like PCBs and PAHs – substances which are known carcinogens. Today, this contamination remains at six land sites and in the sediment that lies at the bottom of the river.

The good news is that there’s a process underway to clean up this toxic mess. At five of the six land-based contamination sites, work is ongoing or scheduled to be done under a court order. (My colleagues at the Anacostia Watershed Society have a great overview of those efforts here.)

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  • Map of the contaminated sites on the Anacostia's banks. Image courtesy of the Anacostia Watershed Society.

But what hasn’t really been tackled yet is the contamination that exists in the sediment at the bottom of the river. The District Department of the Environment has begun the process of doing what’s called a Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study, or RI/FS. That process entails identifying the existing sources of sediment contamination in the river; evaluating the nature and extent of the contamination; and identifying potential cleanup actions.  

Unfortunately, all of this could take a long time. The RI/FS study itself could take another year or two, optimistically, and then it could take decades to actually complete the cleanup efforts.

Which brings me to the new initiative that was announced yesterday at the briefing. To keep the cleanup process moving, a coalition of groups have come together to form United for a Healthy Anacostia River. The coalition intends to raise public awareness of the Anacostia’s toxics problem and keep pressure on our local government officials not to let the cleanup fall behind.

Anyone who lives or works in the D.C. area should consider following the coalition’s social media campaign on Facebook and Twitter, or – most importantly – signing the petition asking the District’s mayor and councilmembers to make the Anacostia cleanup a top priority. Our nation’s capital deserves a healthy environment that’s safe for all residents to enjoy, but we have to take action if we want to make sure the promise of the Anacostia is realized.