How Did The Anacostia River Get So Polluted? (And How Are They Going To Clean It Up?)

anacostiakayaktrash-1032269-lwThe city recently announced that they plan to make the putrid Anacostia River swimmable by 2022, which is sort of like when my coworker asks me if I’m coming to their kid’s birthday party and I say, “I plan on it.”  (Subtext:  plans usually do not work out, which is no fault of the planner.)  When you consider how polluted the Anacostia is – the fish that live in it have literal DNA damage from the toxins – the idea that they’re going to have it clean enough for children to cannonball into is hard to swallow.  But to understand why, we have to look at how the river got this bad, and how they’re trying to remedy it.

Right now, the river is in terrible shape;  there’s a huge amount of trash in it (20,000 tons are dumped in every year); there are high levels of sediment from the collapsing banks, which clouds the water; there are dioxins, heavy metals, and PCBs, known carcinogens, from industrial dumping; and there’s bacteria from sewer overflow, which use up all the oxygen in the water, making it inhospitable for fish and other life. There are six main sources of pollution on the Anacostia: the Pepco facility on Benning Road, the old Kenilworth landfill, Poplar Point, the Navy Yard, the Yards, and the Washington Gas and Light Company site.  The Kenilworth landfill, which was open from the Fifties to the Seventies, covers 50 acres at an average depth of 25 feet.  They didn’t put any barriers or linings in back then, so all the runoff from the compacted trash trickled down into the groundwater and then into the river.  The Navy Yard was used to manufacture munitions and build ships as far back as the 1800s, and has leaked an obscene amount of heavy metals and various carcinogens into the river; same with Poplar Point, and the Washington Gas and Light site, though the pollutants there are from industrial rather than military sources.  The Pepco site’s contributions are mainly from oil spills, which stick around on the surface of the water for years.  All in all, these sites are leftover from a time when people thought you could throw anything in a hole in the ground and that was the end of it.  There’s also the District’s antiquated sewer system, which regularly overflows untreated sewage into the city.  They’re upgrading the system now, but this is where the river’s high levels of E. Coli come from;  if you swam in it now, you’d almost certainly come out with double pink eye.  For the river to be swimmable, the levels of all these various pollutants need to be reduced by 90-97%.

Cleaning up the trash is probably the easiest part;  the city’s already installed “trash traps” at various points leading to the river, and have stepped up street sweeping so less trash gets washed into the river.  The bag tax that everyone complained about has also cut down on the number of plastic bags that turn up in the river.  (Though they still make up the majority of river waste; a San Francisco-style ban on them could be in DC’s future.)  To remedy the high levels of sediment, they’re planting more trees to slow down the runoff;  right now, stormwater speeds over impervious surfaces so fast that when it hits the riverbanks, it takes rocks and mud with it.  They’re also restoring wetlands, which slow and filter runoff, which were destroyed by the Army Corps of Engineers in the Thirties because they were thought to breed mosquitoes.

The most important part – eliminating the toxic chemicals in the river – is also going to be the hardest part.  This is where the District’s plan gets a little hazy – they’re going to “evaluate” methods in conjunction with the EPA, but they don’t have any concrete plans.  Keep in mind, their target date for swimability is six years away.  The outlines of their plan will have to involve identifying the sources of the pollutants – scientists studying the river had described it as a “conveyor belt” transporting toxins downstream – and clean them up, probably by dredging the toxic sediment out of the river with cranes.  They’ll also have to clean the sediment up downstream, where much of it settles around the bases of the 11th Street and South Capitol Street bridges.  This is going to have to be a massive, unprecedented dredging effort, considering that there are so many toxins in the river now that over sixty percent of catfish in the Anacostia have cancerous growths.

It could happen, though.  The New River, which flows from Mexico north into California, was arguably worse than the Anacostia, and was cleaned up in little over a decade with a combination of sewer treatment and wetland restoration.  The Thames, in London, was so polluted that it was declared “biologically dead,” but was restored by wetlands and a government crackdown on polluters.  The Thames, though, took almost forty years to get clean.  Realistically, the Anacostia is probably going to follow more of a Thames River timeline than a New River one.  Many of the worst sources of pollution are controlled by the federal government – not known as the most responsive or cooperative entity – and in the District’s report on the Anacostia cleanup, they cite high testing costs as a major factor in how long it’s going to take them to rehabilitate the river. 2022 probably won’t happen, but your grandchildren will probably swim the Anacostia by mid-century.

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