Group wants federal government to clean Anacostia River

May 02, 2011|By Darryl Fears, The Washington Post

A new report on the health of the Anacostia River by the DC Appleseed advocacy group has a finding that will surprise no one: It is filthy.

But the report, scheduled for release Monday, has a surprisingly bold suggestion to federal officials for cleaning it up: You bear most of the responsibility for polluting the river, and you should do more to help restore it.

City officials, including Mayor Vincent Gray and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), will gather by the river near Nationals Park early Monday to mark the report's release. Prince George's County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Interior David Hayes and Environmental Protection Agency Acting Assistant Administrator for Water Nancy Stoner are scheduled to join them.

The Anacostia is "one of the most polluted waterways in the nation," according to the report, a river beset by sewer overflows, trash and oil and grease that run into its waters when it rains. The watershed touches Prince George's and Montgomery counties and Washington, and it is tainted by legacy toxins — chemicals dumped in the river years ago from sources like the Navy Yard - that endanger fish and make swimming dangerous, the report said.

Dating back to the Civil War, the federal government has denuded forests that would have shielded much of the rain runoff, discharged poisons into the river while manufacturing weapons, built a sewer system that sometimes discharged raw waste and destroyed protective wetlands through dredging.

To right its wrongs, the federal government should take a more active role in coordinating the cleanup, argues DC Appleseed, a nonprofit group dedicated to solving regional public policy concerns.

The report — "A New Day for the Anacostia: "A National Model for Urban Revitalization" — calls on the president and Congress to fund an "Urban River Pilot Program" that would help local jurisdictions that are working to implement recent projects identified in a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plan. The report also urges the federal government to install green retrofits on its properties in the watershed, including buildings and roads, to control storm water pollution.

"The report presents a new way forward for cleaning up the Anacostia," said Walter Smith, president of DC Appleseed. "It concludes that as one of the river's major polluters, the federal government should partner with local jurisdictions . . . to turn the river into a recreational centerpiece, spurring economic development."

EPA officials declined to comment on the report. But the agency already has planned to require "green roofs," rain barrels and other devices to trap water runoff from redeveloped buildings in Washington. Streets, sewers and driveways now act as waterslides that send pollution cascading into the Anacostia.

Current remedies are not getting the job done quickly enough, according to the report. The river doesn't help its own cause: It moves slowly and has low water flow, which means the garbage and debris that falls in remains virtually at a standstill. The Blue Plains Advanced Water Treatment Facility soon will have huge underground storage areas for the river's storm water overflow, and it will have other measures to cut down on nutrient pollutants such as nitrogen and phosphorous.

But even with the upgrades, the Anacostia's water quality would not improve significantly enough to allow safe swimming in most of the watershed.

A federal program could manage upstream river pollution that affects Washington, and could also identify the parties responsible for legacy toxins and take legal action to force them to help get rid of the pollutants, said DC Water General Manager George Hawkins, who oversees Blue Plains.

Hawkins said home builders should be required to follow "river friendly" protocols when constructing housing developments, such as planters and grasses that soak up rain. A media campaign for personal responsibility could convince more people to discard trash in a way that prevents it from ending up in the river, Hawkins said.

"We collect tons and tons of trash," Hawkins said.

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