For over 140 years the Anacostia River that traverses Prince George’s County in Maryland into Washington, D.C. has been the dumping ground for industry and residents alike. While the industry disposed of toxic wastes, people dumped trash in obnoxious proportions and with that, the Anacostia turned into one of the most polluted rivers in the country.
“Twenty-seven years ago we were pulling refrigerators, tires, cars,” Jim Foster, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, told ThinkProgress, “people were dumping a lot of stuff.” Over the years, however, behaviors have changed, affecting environmental regulations that forced cities and companies to clean up their acts. Now, “the river is much better than it was, but we still have a long ways to go.”
Indeed, the Anacostia River remains an imperiled watershed that suffers not just from trash but also from ongoing toxic pollution, according to a new report. The report was commissioned by the District Department of Energy and Environment and is part of the Anacostia River Sediment Project that aims to clean the river of its toxic past. The report unveiled earlier this month confirmed the existence of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, and PCBs, chemicals that have been banned for decades as they can cause cancer. Pesticides, lead, and mercury were found, too.
These pollutants were expected, given the industrial complexes and landfills that were situated near the river. In fact, it’s widely known that industrial facilities dating as far back as the 19th century discharged their waste unscrupulously. Even now, about two billion gallons of untreated sewage and stormwater go into the river each year. That includes oil, fertilizers, pesticides, and trash. And yet the report notes ongoing toxic pollution that officials found surprising since many of the companies have changed how they operate or have closed altogether. “Something is happening basically as we speak,” Wesley Rosenfeld, assistant general counsel at the DOEE, told the Bay Journal last week. “We can’t clean up the river without eliminating an ongoing source of contamination,” he said, explaining that high levels of contaminants in some of these areas can’t be legacy toxic chemicals.
While the report says further sampling is needed to confirm sources, it points to contaminants in various locations including the Washington Navy Yard, the former Steuart Petroleum terminal and outfalls near the former Washington Gas Light Company’s coal gasification plant. By listing some eight other sources of historic pollution, the Anacostia Sediment Remediation Investigation Report is so far the most detailed study of the river and the contaminants affecting its wildlife. It is also the foundation for the future cleanup plan, which will require responsible parties to share the costs.
Though the ongoing sources of toxic pollution are worrisome to Foster, he said they can’t be compared to what happened in the past. “Yes there are contaminated sediments, yes it is still coming down through the storm drains, yes we are going to have to address that, but it’s certainly not on the scale that was dumped in the river years and years ago,” said Foster, adding that much improvement is happening even before the cleanup plan thanks to multiple laws and programs.
Between 75 and 90 percent of the Anacostia’s pollution is caused by stormwater runoff, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Restoring the Anacostia then requires much more than just dredging existing toxic sediments. Realizing that problem, the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority designed a plan to prevent stormwater runoff more than a decade ago. Massive tunnels will trap sewage and stormwater overflow that will then be directed to a treatment plant. By 2018, these tunnels will take over 80 percent of the overflows, Foster said, and by 2022, up to 98 percent. “We are really trying to reduce the impact of rainfall,” he said.
Meanwhile, the city has been aggressive in creating a plastic bag tax and a styrofoam container ban that will go into effect in 2017. The hope is that reducing pollution on land will help the Anacostia River, a rather small watershed of eight miles that’s inside a metropolitan area of more than 5 million. Environmentalists say some improvement is happening already with birds, turtles, fish, otters and other critters coming back. This comes as people are more conscious about how they treat their environment and more likely to demand action.
In D.C., the city’s practices and the ecosystem are not ideal yet — fish are toxic to eat and Foster said just recently much of the sludge the super storm Jonas brought ended up in the Anacostia. Still, major pieces are coming together. “We as the Anacostia Watershed Society think we are on a trajectory to have the river clean, not like Perrier [water], but have it cleaned up by 2025,” said Foster, some seven years after the Department of Energy and Environment selects a cleanup plan for the once dubbed ‘Forgotten River.’