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D.C.’s ‘forgotten river’ getting some attention

Coalition gains momentum in Anacostia clean-up

  • By Whitney Pipkin on March 11, 2014
  • Comments are closed for this article.
Fishermen try their luck in the Anacostia despite warnings not to consume the fish in quantity. (Dave Harp, Bay Journal)

Groups focused on cleaning up the Anacostia River in the District of Columbia say they’re finally getting traction on key components of a cleanup effort that has moved in fits and starts for decades.

In February, seven of these groups, including the Anacostia Watershed Society and Anacostia Riverkeeper, joined forces to form a new coalition called United for a Healthy Anacostia River.  The coalition’s first goal was to review — and bring to the public’s attention — a key draft plan released by the District Department of the Environment at the end of January.

The long-awaited plan lays out a framework for cleaning toxins from the bottom sediments of the Anacostia River, a step that many have called the “third leg” of the cleanup in and along this waterway, along with efforts to reduce polluted stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows in the city.

“We think that finally progress is being made on all three fronts,” said Brooke DeRenzis, project director at DC Appleseed, a nonprofit that taps into a team of pro-bono lawyers to address public policy issues.

DC Appleseed first suggested that a plan to address legacy toxins should be part of a holistic approach to restoring the Anacostia River in a 2011 report. Contaminants in the river include PCBs, arsenic and heavy metals, which make the river unsafe for swimming or harvesting fish (although a study early last year found that as many as 17,000 people could still be eating fish from the river, some of them out of hunger).

The sources of these contaminants already were being addressed along the river’s shore through a half-dozen superfund cleanup projects in various stages at sites like the Washington Navy Yard and Kenilworth Park landfill. DeRenzis said her organization recognized the merits of these projects but noted that they don’t address toxic sediment that may have moved to other parts the river.

In 2012, DDOE began the process of systematically investigating where contaminated sediment may be in the river and how to address it. The remedial investigation draft plan released early this year was the first step in what could be a long superfund cleanup process toward that goal.

Another reason for forming the coalition of Anacostia groups was to make sure the toxics cleanup continues to move forward at a reasonable pace. Doug Siglin, formerly the federal affairs director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, recently joined the Federal City Council to spearhead its new Anacostia River Initiative and help lead the coalition.

Former D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams — who took a special interest in the Anacostia during his tenure — now serves as CEO of the Council, which works with business and civic leaders to address problems in the city. The Summit Fund of Washington awarded the Council’s new river project a sizable two-year grant that paved the way for Siglin’s hire.

The Anacostia Watershed Society also recently welcomed a new leader, Dan Smith, who began serving as the nonprofit’s public policy and advocacy director in the fall. Smith and Siglin worked together on Anacostia issues years ago when they were with different organizations and are now circling back to join forces at an opportune moment.

Smith said he sees the coalition playing a similar role for the Anacostia as the Choose Clean Water Coalition plays for the broader Chesapeake Bay.

Jeff Corbin, EPA senior adviser to the administrator for the Chesapeake Bay and Anacostia River, said he’s encouraged to see the Anacostia coalition not only formed but also led by people who’ve been working on these issues for a couple of decades.

“I think they finally see the opportunity to get the right people together at the right time and actually make some progress,” Corbin said.

Corbin added that, at times, he thinks the Anacostia River cleanup has more moving pieces and players than the entire Chesapeake Bay, with various groups laser-focused on their piece of the cleanup pie.

The Anacostia also has a number of different groups with different timelines for cleaning up the river. The city is aiming to restore the river to make it swimmable and fishable by 2032.

But DC Water plans to have completed the huge tunnels designed to greatly reduce combined overflow sewage by 2025, and the District’s new stormwater permits should help reduce that source of pollution as early as 2016.

James Foster, president of the Anacostia Watershed Society, told a packed room of people at a recent brown bag lunch that his organization is aiming for a swimmable, fishable river by 2025. The lunch in early February (the presentations from which can now be viewed online), drew an unexpected 80 some people who wanted to hear more about and comment on the District’s proposed plan for toxics in the river.

“This is almost a point in time you can mark as taking on the last leg of the stool that needs some heavy lifting,” Foster said about the latest effort to address toxics.

Siglin told the group that there have been 26 different studies of the contaminants in the Anacostia over the past 27 years — but never any action taken on them other than a demonstration project at the Navy Yard. DDOE’s draft plan is the first step toward taking action on sediment contamination.

“The way this has to come to conclusion is that the public, the media, the Council and the mayor need to push for it,” Siglin told the group.

The Anacostia coalition is also pushing for the river to remain a key topic in the ongoing D.C. mayor’s race. The group, along with several other environmental organizations, will host a candidate’s forum on the environment and other issues at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, March 21 at 300 Tingey St. SE in Washington, D.C.

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About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin, writes about food, agriculture and the environment. She lives in Alexandria, VA, and is a fellow of the Institute for Journalists of Natural resources and blogs at thinkabouteat.com.
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin

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