At first glance, some stretches of the Anacostia river in Washington, D.C. look like those of any other urban waterway — muddy-brown, crossed-over by bridges, flanked by a few grassy trails and dotted with docks here and there.
The river made a scenic backdrop for D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray to sign the city’s Sustainability Act on a sunny, breezy Tuesday this week. But the location of the signing wasn’t chosen for its beauty. One of the bill’s main goals is to start cleaning up the heavily polluted Anacostia by implementing a ban of Styrofoam containers, a policy that will go in place in 2017 and which supporters hope will be as successful at reducing Styrofoam pollution in the river as the D.C. plastic bag tax was at reducing bag pollution. The Mayor also chose the river as a way to highlight a new plan, with initial phases beginning this month, that aims to clean up the toxic pollution that’s been discharged into the river for decades.
“I know first-hand that this river was once a place for people to swim in, and people [to] fish in and enjoy the natural resources,” Gray said Tuesday. “While there have been many attempts to improve the condition of the Anacostia River in the past, I’m actually very encouraged by the efforts to date because this is the first time in history that the District government is taking the lead to assess and then remove toxic pollution from the Anacostia River.”
The river’s long history of pollution — not just the trash that gets thrown out of passing cars, but the toxic, cancer-causing substances — and lawmakers’ history of remaining largely indifferent to the problem has earned the Anacostia the nickname of the “Forgotten River.” Industrial facilities dating as far back as the 19th century have discharged carcinogenic PCBs and PAHs, sewage overflow dumps about two billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater into the river each year, and like most urban rivers, runoff discharges oil, fertilizers, pesticides and trash into the river. In 2011, a report dubbed the Anacostia “one of the most polluted waterways in the nation.”
There have been plenty of studies on the Anacostia River’s pollution, and in recent years, some steps have been taken to reduce the pollution coming into the river. But the new plan, called the Anacostia River Sediment Project, aims to develop a strategy to deeply and thoroughly clean the river. The first phase of the project involves intensive testing of the river’s sediment to isolate exactly which pollutants are in the river and to identify the areas where they are most concentrated. The testing, completed by scientists at Tetra Tech, is already underway, and will also involve testing clams to see how much pollution has accumulated in their tissue. The testing is set to be completed by June 2015, and after that, a plan for how to clean up the river will be developed, with river cleanup projected to be underway by June 2019.
Doug Siglin, Executive Director of the Anacostia River Initiative, a government project that helped design the Sediment Project, has been working on restoring the Anacostia for 17 years. Though there has been progress on the issue before now, including installing litter traps that capture garbage entering the river and a plan that aims to drastically reduce sewer pollution in the river, the biggest challenge to implementing a comprehensive cleanup plan has been residents’ indifference to the river’s health.
“We used to think of rivers as part of the waste stream, that it was just OK to throw stuff in them because it would just go away,” Siglin said. “I think it’s been an evolution in people’s views that now in the modern world, clean rivers are important for recreation and cultural reasons. I think the biggest challenge has been to get people’s minds wrapped around what a potential amenity the Anacostia could be.”
The biggest challenge has been get people’s minds wrapped around what a potential amenity the Anacostia could be.
Siglin said that in addition to seeing the Sediment Project carried through, he wants to see D.C. create parkland along the Anacostia River. He envisions the river as not only fishable and swimmable, but a place where D.C. residents will come to picnic, listen to music, sail, and canoe — and a place that, like other urban parks, can host art installations. It’s something he’s been talking to D.C. officials about, and he’s optimistic that they’ll continue to be receptive.
“Other places are doing it — why shouldn’t we do it in nation’s capital?” he said.
That goal is the main reason he does the work he does, he said — he wants the river to become a central meeting place in D.C., rather than a boundary that divides the east part of the city from the west. That’s what Lee Cain, director of recreation for the Anacostia Watershed Society, said he wants for the river, too. The Anacostia Watershed Society offers free canoe trips down the river and has been working to build new docks along its shores, so that even before the cleanup is complete, residents can better enjoy the river.
“A lot of people live within a mile of the Anacostia and have never been up to it,” he said. “So we’re trying to make it so that people can enjoy that space.”
Until the river is cleaner, though, improving recreation is a challenge. The D.C. government has issued warnings not to eat the fish that are caught out of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers, but still, a study commissioned by the Anacostia Watershed Society found that 17,000 people eat the fish they catch out of the river each year, despite signage warning them not to. Most of the fishers in the study were African American or Hispanic, and many were sharing the fish with hungry people who approached them, begging for the fish.
“We’ve got a guy that calls us every day or comes past our fishing spot every day to see what we caught and get our fish because he’s not working, he doesn’t have any, and that’s basically all him and his wife eat,” one of the study’s respondents said.
These findings point to issues that reach beyond the Anacostia’s pollution, including food security and the best way to relay the dangers of eating Anacostia fish to local communities. But under the new plan, the river could be fishable again by the early 2030s, eliminating the need for residents to worry about what they’re eating from the river.
“Ultimately if we succeed we’re going to change Anacostia from this forbidding, polluted thing that divides Washington to this beautiful amenity that can connect the west side to the east side back together,” Siglin said.