Pollution Legacies On The Anacostia

Our River: The Anacostia

Picnicking on the lawn enjoying live music at Yards Park, biking the Anacostia Riverfront Trail or kayaking past the Arboretum, we think less and less these days about the industries that once consumed much of the river’s edges. While their remnants are being cleared away (the last of the Benning Road PEPCO Powerplant gets taken down this month), we will be dealing with the pollutants left behind on their sites and in the river for many more years. And while that does not prevent recreation of many types, swimming in the river and consuming the fish we catch there are still well off in the future.

The full list of toxic cleanup sites in the District includes Kenilworth Park, which was a city dump for decades; the PEPCO plant; the CSX Rail Yard; Washington Gas; the Navy Yard; and Poplar Point. Each of these has an interesting story to tell; this month let’s take a look at two adjacent sites that meet under the 11th Street Bridge, Washington Gas and the Navy Yard.

Washington Gas

This site is located south of M St SE to the river and from under the 11th Street Bridge for several hundred yards north along the river. Water Street splits the site. Much of the area north of Water Street has been developed into office space and parking lots (Maritime Plaza on the chart). The production facility came down in 1986, and the storage tanks in 1997. The remainder of this part has the old buildings of the gas works, which operated for nearly a century from 1888 making gas from coal and oil to use for lighting and heating. The main contaminant from the operations was coal tar, which contains arsenic, lead and other toxins. This part of the site is undergoing cleanup of the wastes and pumping and treating of groundwater. The focus is on groundwater and its contamination of the river and its sediments.

The part of the site south of Water Street to the river is of greater interest to the public, since it is government property that will eventually become open space shoreline along the river. Here the solutions are different. Because the contamination here is in the soils and riverbank, the soil and subsurface soil down to as much as three feet will be removed and replaced with clean fill and topsoil. There will also be an on-going Institutional Controls Program to monitor for potential future risks. Although the land is owned by the city, the National Park Service, which manages much of the land along the River, is responsible to ensure that Washington Gas carries out all of the remedial actions on schedule. The removal and replacement of soil means that the site may be closed to the public for up to two years after completion to assure that vegetation has taken hold in the new topsoil. Work on the soil removal on the part near the river will begin this month. 

The last part of the Washington Gas cleanup is still in the planning stage. This involves an evaluation of the extent of contamination from the site of the sediments entering and settling on the bottom of the River and as well as the impact of all this on the River water. Investigations will begin once there is agreement on a work plan, which often takes many months. In this case the schedule may need to be speeded up, since the project will need to be coordinated with the District’s overall study and plan to remediate contaminated sediment throughout the water and the bottom of the River. This study has been underway since summer and must develop a remediation plan by 2017. Updated information on the Washington Gas site is available at: www.nps.gov/nace/parkmgmt/apecp.htm.

Washington Navy Yard

Downstream of Washington Gas and nearly a century before, the Washington Navy Yard began building ships in 1799. After the War of 1812, when the Commandant set fire to the place to prevent it from falling into British hands, it shifted its mission to ordnance and technology and was even renamed the US Naval Gun Factory in 1945.  Today the old factory buildings have either been converted to or replaced by offices, as the (renamed again) Navy Yard serves as a large consolidated administrative center for Naval District Washington. The USS Barry is open to tourists as a museum ship tied to the wharf along the Riverside Walk , which runs from Yards Park to the 11th Street Bridge.

But all this past activity and the current role as a major office complex have left the need to clean up a lot of toxic pollution from nearly two centuries of manufacturing, guns, torpedos, turrets and all manner of munitions.  Even the first shipboard aircraft catapault was tested in the Anacostia in 1912. The toxic legacy from these industrial activities included lead, arsenic, mercury, iron, beryllium, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), petroleum hydrocarbons and pesticides. Many of these were in the groundwater and as well as the soils, migrating to the river and its sediments and fish. In short, the Navy Yard was DC’s first full-fledged Superfund site.

After several decades of effort, nearly all of about two dozen toxic sites on the property have been cleaned up to the point that it is safe for the thousands who now work there. The movement of toxics through the groundwater to the river and the sediments is a different story, and has taken much longer to pin down. An early experiment to cap some of the sediments had inconclusive results, and there is still not agreement among EPA, the city and the Navy on how to proceed to fill data gaps from earlier studies in the water column and sediments. Like the situation at the Washington Gas site, agreement needs to be reached soon so the data can be factored into the District’s overall study and plan to clean up the sediments in the entire nine mile stretch of the river. And unlike Washington Gas, the Park Service has no role here, so there is no easy way to keep up to date. Neither the city nor the Navy provides regular updates on a readily accessible site, and the most recent update on the EPA Superfund website is (believe it or not!) August 2011. The best way to keep abreast of progress is through a blog at the Anacostia Watershed Society at:  http://www.anacostiaws.org/news/blog/toxics-cleanup-efforts-review-past-...

The best thing we can all do is to firmly support the overall sediment clean-up effort being led by the DC Department of the Environment, making sure they stay on schedule and incorporate the water and sediment quality studies from these and other sites along the river. After all, though the Anacostia is looking better and better every month, it still needs a lot of work so our children’s children can swim in it.