Who, What and When?: The River Clean-Up and How You Can Help

Our River: The Anacostia

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River’s Edge of Opportunities. Photo: Bill Matuszeski

Now is a good time to look into just what is happening to get Our River clean and safe for humans, fish and other critters. There’s a general feeling that progress is being made and evidence to support that. People are certainly enjoying the river more than they ever have, what with all the new parks and amenities along its banks. But there is confusion about who is doing what, and what is supposed to be accomplished by when.

As most of us know, there is an extensive toxic clean-up program underway. The DC Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) is in charge of working with all players to come up with three documents in the next year. These are (1) a Remedial Investigation, or RI, to identify what is the situation with toxics in the river; and (2) a Feasibility Study, or FS, to lay out what can be done about it. These two are often referred to as one RI/FS, and are to be completed in the next few months. Then comes (3) the Record of Decision, or ROD, to set out precisely what will be done; the ROD was scheduled for release by the end of this year, but now looks like it won’t be ready until sometime in 2020.

Who and Where
There are several players engaged in developing and carrying out this clean-up plan. The DC DOEE has the lead, working with the Maryland Department of the Environment (DEP) to deal with issues upstream of the DC line. The National Park Service is involved since it owns the river bottom where many of the accumulated sediments are contaminated. There are also three active major clean-up sites in and along the river with the legal responsibilities for compliance assigned to adjacent landowners who historically discharged toxics into the River. These are Pepco, Washington Gas and the US Navy Yard. The first two are on a schedule that will complete their strategies by 2020 or2021; the Navy’s schedule is less clear. In addition to these three, there are 11 additional identified contamination sites with potential for special clean-up actions; these include Kenilworth Park Landfill (Park Service land about to be transferred to the City), Langston Golf Course (under consideration for bidding out by the Park Service), the Kingman Island dumping grounds, as well as a number of now-abandoned petroleum terminals. Finally, a number of environmental groups are watching this process closely and engaging in the debates over process and timetables. These include the Anacostia Watershed Society, Anacostia Riverkeeper, and the Chesapeake Legal Alliance.

How much of the river is covered by all these efforts? The RI/FS and the ROD will deal with the river from Bladensburg to the Potomac, and up the Washington Channel along the Southwest waterfront to the Tidal Basin. As needed, upstream and tributary sources in both DC and Maryland will be included in the analysis since they are potential contributing sources until they are cleaned up, and restoration of some areas is said to make no sense until those upstream sources of pollution are controlled.

How Will the Cleanup Work
A wide variety of remedial steps are under consideration to heal the river. Capping or removing the contaminated sediments is just one option, but it has its limits. Caps on sediments in shallow areas can erode and re-expose the toxics. Removal of deep sediments is expensive and those depths may not be as contaminated as surface or shallow sediments. Other remedial approaches that could be used include building new wetlands, reconnecting older wetlands, replacing shoreline soils and shallow sediments where they will stay in place, removing concrete bulwarks and otherwise engaging nature to help absorb and remove toxics and nutrients.

Decisions and How You Can Help Make Them
How are all these complicated and inter-related decisions to be made? Participants seem to be agreed that an “adaptive management” approach will be used. Adaptive management allows you to start with one set of approaches to see what works and then adjust the mix as the effort continues to do more of what is working best and less of what isn’t. But some want to limit the range of actions at the beginning and move slowly, while others see the need to start with a full set of sites and actions and develop the focus from the early results.

This “try everything we can everywhere we can” approach is credited with the progress being made in the Chesapeake Bay restoration; they did not work only on farms or only on sewer lines to get where they are; they tried lots of things on lots of places and then focused on what worked best.

Another key element under discussion is how to ensure that the full range of benefits will result from the clean-up. Remember, the focus of this enormous effort is water quality improvement, and as important as that is, there are other benefits that could emerge from an undertaking so extensive and so expensive — benefits such as habitat restoration, improved safe recreational fisheries, safe swimming locations, education, and recreation. These are improvements that the public is particularly good at valuing and setting priorities for.

Now is the time to engage the public agencies, environmental groups and industries to help set those broader goals for the restoration. Once the ROD is issued, probably early in the new year, it will be too late, since it will set out what will be done where and when. While the City has the best intentions to reach out to neighborhood groups and others, they will be under great pressure to issue the ROD and get on with the work it outlines. And they may be reluctant to agree to any major changes in the final months before issuing the ROD. So it makes sense for the public to act now and through those who are engaged already.

 

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River. He is on the Board of the Friends of the National Arboretum, a DC member the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.