According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Anacostia estuary, a tributary of the Potomac River that drains an area of approximately 176 square miles of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland and Washington, D.C., “has some of the poorest water quality recorded in the Chesapeake Bay system.”
Scientists have found elevated concentrations of hazardous substances including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), lead, other trace elements, pesticides and even fecal bacteria from sewage, according to the District Department of Environment.
If those noxious contaminants are not removed, they can pose grave risks to aquatic and human life and undermine potential development in the area, the coalition said.
“The Anacostia River has long been a polluted dividing line between the East and West sides of the District,” said Doug Siglin, chair of the coalition and executive director of the Federal City Council’s Anacostia River Initiative.
But, he added, “Cities all over the world are beginning to view their rivers and waterways as economic, social, cultural and recreational assets. [And the Anacostia River] is a place where residents of the District of Columbia—Black, White, rich, poor, gay, straight—can come together, be together, work together and play together.”
The Anacostia watershed—84 percent of which lies in Maryland and 16 percent in D.C.—has suffered years of degradation due to urban development and industry. The most significant sources of pollutants are sewer overflows and urban stormwater discharges, the EPA said. Additionally, several industrial facilities—Pepco Benning Road, CSX Transportation Benning Yard, Poplar Point, Kenilworth Park Landfill, Washington Gas Light Co., and the Washington Navy Yard—are within close proximity to the river and contribute to the contamination.
Furthermore, 98 percent of the tidal wetlands and nearly 75 percent of the freshwater wetlands within the watershed have been destroyed, which further endangers the river’s environmental health.
For more than two decades, D.C. and Maryland agencies along with nonprofit groups have worked to repair the river, including rehabilitating sewer systems and launching public “no litter” campaigns.
On Jan. 30, the District Department of the Environment published a remedial investigation work plan for public comment. The plan outlines DDOE efforts to study the nature of the toxins in the Anacostia and their sources, and will guide its future efforts to remove toxic sediments from the river.
But the coalition believes the District should undertake an aggressive plan to ameliorate the toxic pollution in the river and initiate those efforts by January 2017. To support that goal, the group has launched a “robust” social media campaign to educate and mobilize District residents to agitate on behalf of faster remediation.
“The experience of other jurisdictions that have done this is that the process takes a long time,” Siglin said. “The more the public understands and is engaged, the faster the process goes.”
The campaign’s current centerpiece is an online petition, posted on Change.org, urging Mayor Vincent Gray and members of the D.C. Council to “make cleaning up the toxins in the Anacostia River a top priority.”