Will the Anacostia River Really Be Safe and Clean By 2018? Depends What You Mean By “Safe” and “Clean”

trash-Anacostia-river-maryland_chesapeake-bay-program_flickrVariation on an old joke: what’s the fastest, easiest way to clean a polluted river?  Issue a press release saying it’s clean.

That this might be a trick in the District’s playbook when it comes to the Anacostia River cleanup is the disturbing implication of various lawsuits and counter-suits winding their way through the court system.  Last month, an environmental group called Earth Justice filed a lawsuit against the EPA, claiming that in 2014, the agency set new guidelines for maximum safe levels of bacteria in the Anacostia River that were far too high.  But last year, DC Water also sued the EPA, but for the opposite reason – that the new guidelines for water safety that Earth Justice claims are far too lax are actually too strict.  DC Water’s main argument seems to be that it would be too expensive to meet the new guidelines – which isn’t the most comforting sentiment coming from the people who oversee our water quality.  (“DC Water: Giving You Clean Drinking Water, Unless We Decide It’s Too Expensive!”)

The disturbing thing about DC Water’s suit is the picture it paints of one of the main District agencies overseeing the massive cleanup of the Anacostia River, facing a very public deadline (the City Council famously committed to a June 2018 deadline just four years ago), trying to move the goalposts.  It’s classic politics; if you can’t meet the standard, just change the standard.  It also suggests that if there’s a press conference in June 2018 announcing that the Anacostia is clean and ready for swimmers, you should think very hard about who made that decision and what standard they used.

The plan DC City Council committed to back in 2014 calls for the river to be clean enough to swim and catch edible fish in, a lofty goal for a waterway so disgusting that many fish that live in it developed tumors.  The initial optimism that led to such an ambitious cleanup plan stemmed from the nature of the problem itself; up to 90% of the pollution in the river is raw sewage overflow from the District’s antiquated sewer system.  Since the system, which dates back to 1810, has no real backup mechanism to handle overflows, whenever we get a lot of rain, the overspill carries untreated sewage into the Anacostia, raising the fecal bacteria levels so high that you’d get instant pink eye and fever (seriously) if you so much as waded in.  This happens, on average, about 80 times a year.  Meaning the Anacostia is basically a huge toilet.

DC Water is now digging a massive, billion-dollar tunnel under the District which will act as a backup for the sewage overspills, routing it to the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant instead of the Anacostia.  The tunnel is scheduled to be finished in late March of 2018, not coincidentally just a couple months before the Anacostia clean-up target date.  This will reduce the level of fecal bacteria in the Anacostia to nearly zero; the problem is that, while the fecal bacteria is disgusting, it’s not really the most serious problem.

0*HwAvJtnnQ7yqOPUmThe very worst pollutants in the river, the substances that are giving those fish cancer, are things like heavy metals, cyanide, and PCBs.  Fecal bacteria might make you sick, but it can’t kill you.  These pollutants could kill you.  They’re not only seeping into the river from various sites along the Anacostia – namely, the Navy Yard, the Pepco plant on Benning Road, the Washington Light and Gas coal gasification plant, the Kenilworth Landfill, and Poplar Point – they’re also embedded deep into the river’s sediment, from which they’re slowly filtering upwards.  The upshot is that cleaning up the toxic sites won’t be enough; literally millions of tons of sediment will have to be dredged from the river’s bottom, or poison will continue to enter the waters.

So who pays for something like that?  Well, there’s one of the major complications.  The law says that whoever is responsible for the pollution has to foot the billion-dollar bill for the cleanup, and in this case, the likely suspects include the US Army, the US Navy, Pepco, and Washington Gas.  In previous river cleanups around the country, just settling which parties were responsible for which pollutants took years of litigation.  The District Department of the Environment  struck a “consent decree” with Pepco to address the Benning Road pollution source, but critics pointed out that the agreement isn’t even legally binding, and allowed Pepco to do its own pollutant assessment, a conflict of interest if there ever was one.  (Predictably, the report was riddled with gaps and oversights.)  Again, the river is supposed to be safe for kids to swim in, in about a year and a half.  Depending on how heavily invested the city government is in meeting their self-imposed deadline, and considering how complex the cleanup has turned out to be, it might be tempting to try and game the system – suing the EPA to get them to lower their safety standards, outsourcing the pollution report to the polluters.

The sad part is that the river could be truly, genuinely cleaned up – just not by June 2018.  The Anacostia Watershed Society thinks a more realistic goal is 2025, seven years later than the District’s target.  The choice for the District government, then, seems to be between admitting failure and doing it right, or claiming success and not really doing it at all.  But who knows, maybe they’ll do the right thing this time; ex-councilmembers are already hinting to the Washington Post that the river won’t be clean by the June 2018 date.

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