The Long, Slow Row to a Toxics-Free River

Our River: The Anacostia

Sampling for fish and shellfish on the River above Pennsylvania    Avenue Bridge. Photo credit: DC Department of the Environment 

With the sparkling new waterfront parks and restaurants below M Street, the new riverfront trails being laid down, the huge new stormwater tunnels, the bald eagles raising their young up by the National Arboretum and the appearance of more and more sculls and shells of rowers, it might seem all is getting well along our river.  But underlying it all is a chronic sickness, a legacy of toxic pollution that is still with us and will take many years to eradicate.  This month we look at what is being done to deal with it.

There are really three parts to the toxic problem.  First, we need to get a handle on any remaining sources of toxic pollution entering the river from streams and outfalls.  Second, we need to deal with toxic seepage from old industrial sites that are being cleaned up under Superfund and other programs.  The big six of these along the Anacostia, from north to south, are the old landfill at Kenilworth Park, the Pepco powerplant site along Benning Road, the CSX Railyard on the east side of the River between East Capitol St and Pennsylvania Avenue, the Washington Gas/ Stuart Petroleum site on the west side just north of the 11th Street Bridge, the Navy Yard/Southeast Federal Center, and Poplar Point across from the Navy Yard.  All of these sites have made progress remediating the contaminated soils; however, more needs to be done to clean up toxicity in the groundwater and adjacent shorelines and shallows of the river.

But the really challenging task ahead of us is to remove or cap the contaminated sediments that lie on the river bottom , where they shift around and re-suspend based on tides and storms that pass through.  The contamination enters the food chain of fish and shellfish, resulting in high levels of liver cancer and skin lesions, leading to a fish consumption advisory.  

The Anacostia River Sediment Project, an effort of the DC Department of the Environment in cooperation with the Federal EPA and the State of Maryland, has the task of cleaning up these toxic sediments and keeping them clean in a nine mile stretch from the confluence of the Northwest and Northeast Branches north of Bladensburg, to the Potomac.

The Project has been underway for more than a year and has completed a work plan, a riverbed survey, and a Community Involvement Plan, and has held a number of community and stakeholder meetings and issued updates.  The first year of data collection from hundreds of samples of sediment, fish and shellfish and surface water from dozens of sites has been completed and analysis has begun.  This year a second round of sampling will be done, focusing on shallow areas, especially near the old industrial sites.  As the analysis is completed it will be provided to the public.  “The leaders of this Project are committed to transparency and to keeping the community updated on progress,” says Sharon Cooke, the Community Involvement coordinator for DOE’s Environmental Services Administration.

This means that by fall we should be able to read the “what’s there” document, which is called the Remedial Investigation Report.  This Report should also give us a sense of the relative risk of toxicity in different parts of the River and at different times of the year.  It is likely, for example, that there is a deep sink of toxics in waters off the Navy Yard piers, since the production of ordnance and munitions began there in the late 18th century and went on until after World War II.  Another likely concentration will be in the underground drainage from the Kenilworth Park land that served until the late 40’s as a major city dumping ground.   We may also get a clearer sense of the loadings of pesticides and other chemicals from Poplar Point, which looks rather harmless today, but has a long history as a plant nursery going back to when a lot of nasty stuff was spread around to control insects, fungus and other threats to the health of what was bring grown there.

Equally important will be what we learn about the seepage of toxics from groundwater at the six old industrial sites that have undergone clean-up, and how much contamination remains in the near shore water and sediments adjacent to those sites.   At the same time, the water and fish samples upstream will tell us how much additional toxic contamination is coming from sites above Bladensburg.  While it is not thought to be much, there may be a few “hot spots” that need to be tracked down by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

From all this, the Project will then prepare a Feasibility Study, the “what are the options” document.  This will examine the full range of alternative actions possible with respect to the sources of toxicity and how to clean them up.  It will deal, for example, with the alternatives for the sediments in the center of the river, where there will be options to cap them with clean material and to remove them completely.  Capping is generally cheaper and quicker, but removal is more permanent, assuming a disposal site is available.  The Feasibility Study will be developed during 2016 and 2017.

The next step will be the “what we will do” document, called a Record of Decision.  As it sounds, this proposes the specific remediation actions to be taken and a timeframe.  After a major lobbying effort by citizen-based environmental groups, the DC City Council set a date for completion of the Record of Decision – June 30, 2018.  Like all self-respecting bureaucracies, DOE is not now promising that it can make that date, so there will need to be a major effort by all involved.  And so far there is a level of confidence among the employees that it is doable.  As Wesley Rosenfeld,  a program analyst working on the Project says, “So far we are exceeding expectations based on experience elsewhere”.  

So by three years from now we will know what needs to be done and the best way to do it.  Then the design of the actual remediation will be prepared and we will get the clean-up underway.  Just one problem:  Who will pay for the remediation, which will be a very expensive undertaking?  Folks are already working on the answer to that, and there are a number of options.  It will probably be a mix of the owners and previous owners of the contamination sites along the shoreline, the various levels of government, and perhaps others.  One interesting fact: in a number of other cases, much of the burden has fallen on the landowner, but who is the landowner of the bottom of the Anacostia?  Interestingly, the major portion is deeded to the National Park Service!  But to have them foot the bill seems to make little sense.  Let’s just say it will be an interesting ongoing conversation.  The key is to resolve early just who will foot the very large bill.

So how long will it take for our river to be toxics-free and truly fishable and swimmable?  The citizens groups active along the river have called for achieving that goal by 2024.  But the city in its planning is saying 2032.   By then I will be 91 and hopefully able to drag my body down for a swim in the Anacostia.  I hope you will join me.

Inspecting an Anacostia River catfish. Photo: DC Department of the Environment