DC’s Dirty Little Secret

Toxins in the Anacostia River

Most Washingtonians know that DC Water is trying to alleviate the city’s combined sewer overflow (CSO) problem. But the average resident isn’t aware of the toxins that are constantly flowing into the Anacostia River. According to Paul Connor, deputy directorof environmental services administration at the District Department of Environment (DDOE), major contaminants include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons(PAHs), heavy metals like arsenic and lead, and pesticides. Several of these toxins are linked to neurological damage and cancer in both humans and wildlife. In fact, the US Fish and Wildlife Service studied the high rates of cancer in brown bullhead catfish in the Anacostia, due to the contaminants in the river itself and in sediment.

In early February, a group of concerned citizens formed United for a Healthy Anacostia, aiming to educate the public about river toxins, as well as to put pressure on government agencies to expedite the cleanup process. Doug Siglin, one of its members, sat down with us to explain why this issue is so pressing.

Slow and sludgy

To best understand the significant effects of these toxins, it’s important to know how the Anacostia flows.

The Anacostia River is a tributary to the Potomac River, flowing north to south. It has a stream network of dendritic patterns, much like a leaf, that all feed down to the main part of the river. Its watershed is maintained by three counties: a fifth in Montgomery, a fifth in Prince George’s and the rest in the District. 

Siglin explained that since the water is flowing north and west, geographically and hydraulically, tidal sludge isn’t being taken out with the ebb and flow of each tide.

“The practical impact of that is if you throw something in the river, whether it be a piece of trash or oil, it tends to slosh back and forth and not flush out,” he said.   

Toxins  come in from all over the stream network. Siglin identified six major sites that likely pollute the Anacostia.

Kenilworth Park

The site of the National Park Service’s Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens was DC’s garbage dump for decades. Back in 1942, the city lit it on fire, and it burned constantly until 1968.

“People dumped everything there,” Siglin said, adding that toxins can include residue from old army ammunitions and equipment. “In 1968, some kid got burned up in it, so they stopped the burning and closed it in 1970.”

However, NPS simply put soil over it, so all the toxins remain and leach into the groundwater. Since it was an active dump for decades without the environmental laws that we have today, it’s hard to know exactly what chemicals are there, but one of them is most likely PCB, which is a heavy, oil-like substance that was used in electrical equipment. It cannot freeze or burn and is highly toxic. Congressed banned its use in 1979.

The NPS has installed additional groundwater monitoring wells along the perimeter of the site. This data will be used to reach a decision on how to clean up the area.

Pepco’s Benning Road site 

Just downstream from Kenilworth is Pepco’s Benning Road site, a generating station that went into operation in 1819, burning coal to generate electricity. Not only was coal – a known pollutant – used as its base fuel, but all of the generators used PCBs. The site encompasses almost 200 acres and is located right in the center of the District on the Anacostia.

Pepco wants to revamp the whole area, since it is no longer in use. In December 2012, Pepco entered in a consent agreement with DDOE to clean up the site, a process that is now in its final stages, according to Connor.

Washington Gas site

Further south is the old Washington Gas coal plant, where a chemical process to turn coal into gas was used to light houses before electricity. Connor said this site has a high concentration of PAHs, a result of the coal to gas conversion. The residue is a tar-like, cancer-causing substance.

Washington Gas entered an agreement with DDOE and NPS and agreed to remove one to three feet of soil in areas where contaminants are present. Study of the water adjacent to the site is anticipated to begin this summer.

Poplar Point

On the east side of the river, just across from Nationals Park, is the Poplar Point site. One part used to be a naval base that manufactured aircraft, producing all sorts of contaminants. After that, it became a tree nursery, where DC’s government planted trees and flowers. However, for decades poisonous pesticides were used, which seeped into the wetlands located right next to it and into the groundwater. The nursery was eventually abandoned.

Connor said that DDOE is “undertaking a cleanup, pursuant to an order issued by the NPS.”

Washington Navy Yard   

What is now an office park at the Washington Navy Yard was once the largest army naval manufacturing facility in the history of the world, dating back to 1799. It was the first land site of the US Navy, where over 25,000 employees built ships and armaments during World War II, with no environmental control, dumping all kinds of solvents and chemicals into the Anacostia that likely remain at the bottom today.

Connor said that a cleanup at this site, lead by DDOE, is also underway.

CSX Railway Yard

Last but not least is the CSX Railway yard which runs adjacent to the Anacostia Freeway. According to Melanie Cost, a spokesperson for CSX, “extensive sampling and analysis in its rail yard and in the Anacostia River sediments nearby, as well as upstream and downstream from the rail yard” have been conducted under an agreement with DDOE. Cost said that the analyses show that the CSX rail yard “does not contribute and has not contributed to the elevated levels of contaminants that have accumulated in the Anacostia and its sediments.” According to Siglin however, the rail yard is "polluted like a rail yard is polluted."

Looking forward

DDOE launched a project a year and a half ago to investigate and clean up contaminated sediments in the river, which can be a lengthy process. Connor said that DDOE is in the process of developing a “broader plan to rehabilitate and develop the Anacostia” so the “communities on the river can use it without any fear of exposure…it has tremendous potential. When you are worried about exposure, you can’t really enjoy or use the river.”

However, United for a Healthy Anacostia wants to make sure that these cleanups come to fruition. “We are asking people to become a part of this campaign to keep heat on the politicians to start this process of identifying and putting out feasibility studies,” Siglin said.

United for a Healthy Anacostia is calling for all preliminary studies to be done within a year and cleanup within three years. The group is in the process of planning a candidate forum on the issue, scheduled for March 14. It’s important that funds for this cleanup are included in this year’s budget, Siglin said.

For more information or to get involved, visit HealthyAnacostiaRiver.org.