Getting A Start on the Anacostia “Hotspots”

Our River: The Anacostia

1622

HOORAY!!  On September 30 the DC Department of Energy and Environment issued something called the “Interim Record of Decision and Near-Term Action Plan for the Anacostia River Sediment Project.”  Now if this does not excite you to stand up and cheer, you may not be aware how long some have been waiting for this document.

It has been under development since 2013.

What makes it so anticipated is that it sets out a $35.5 million set of clean-up actions for 11 toxic “hotspots” in three areas of the nine-mile stretch of the River in DC.  These are the specific locations in the River mainstem, Kingman Lake and the Washington Channel (the Southwest waterfront area) where toxics have accumulated in the sediments to the degree that they contaminate fish and endanger swimming.  The Plan is to safely remove or cap the toxics, which include a number of long-standing pollutants that do not degrade in the sediments – polychlorinated bi-phenyls (PCB’s), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH’s), dioxins, heavy metals and pesticides.

The Plan calls for a 90% reduction in these toxics over a number of years beginning in 2023 – the time between now and then needed to develop the specific actions for the 11 sites.  First to be done will be the three Kingman Lake sites, which total six acres located close to recreation fields and education programs on the islands and lands adjacent.  The toxics will be removed and/or capped.  Then there will be six sites on the mainstem of the River comprising 44 acres to be removed and capped.  Finally, there are two sites comprising 27 acres in the Washington Channel; these will be contained and covered with sediment.  These actions up front are intended to best protect health and the environment until a Final Record of Decision is completed for the entire water bodies, at which time some additional actions on the 11 hotspots may be needed.

It needs to be understood that the entire Action Plan for The Anacostia Sediment Project is focused on cleaning up existing areas of toxic contamination in the River.  As such, it is only one “pillar” among many supporting the overall restoration, although an essential part of the DOEE effort.  Other pillars include elimination of combined sewer overflows, where DC Water has the lead and is well underway to a 98% reduction, a remarkable goal that they are likely to achieve in the next couple of years.

For those among you who are non-sewer experts, older parts of US cities were built with a system of combined sanitary and storm sewers where the flush of rainwater was intended to clean out the remnants of the sewage.  With the paving of streets and open lots, the rush of rainwater was too much for these sewers to handle, so rather than have the sewage back up into homes, overflow valves were installed to let the combined sewage run into our rivers untreated.  Now, the DC Water project uses underground storage tunnels to retain the combined sewage until the treatment plant can handle it and is already capturing 90% of the storm volume.  The Anacostia’s new system is premier in the entire nation and other parts of the DC metro area will not get the level of treatment that we will.

Another pillar will be a program to reduce plastics in runoff and sewage, where they break down and affect aquatic life in the Anacostia, the Potomac, the Chesapeake and the Atlantic.  Then there is the Green Infrastructure Pillar, restoring natural shoreline, protecting natural areas upstream, reducing pollution running directly into the River off the land and streets, etc.  Finally, there are toxics on the lands and adjacent waters of historic industrial sites along the River, many now abandoned; among those working in cooperation with DOEE are the current owners of the old Pepco and Washington Gas sites and the Navy Yard.  All these efforts are part of a unified River restoration plan under the guidance and leadership of DOEE.  There is much to talk about here in future articles about the Anacostia and how so many are working on its recovery.

But getting back to the toxic sediments, what is important now is to assure public support to move ahead and implement the Interim Record of Decision and get to work on the contaminated sediments in the River, starting with the 11 hot spots.  The public needs to keep the pressure on to assure that no more time is lost – that detailed plans are developed and contracts let so that the proposed 2013 date to start the actual clean-up and covering work in the hot spots is met, and expanded to the rest of the River bottom as determined by the completed Plan for a 90% reduction of toxics.

This broader effort beyond the 11 hot spots will require preparation of the Final Record of Decision, currently expected by 2025.  This will set out what more is needed (1) in the 11 early action sites or “hot spots” if more can be done; (2) elsewhere in the three River areas, and (3) by using treatment options beyond removal and capping.  Also to be considered are sites along the river bank and adjacent waters, both those already under restoration like the Navy Yard and newly identified sites such as the fields at the old Kenilworth dump.  In addition, the overall plan will include the potential benefits from clean-up of sewer lines and upstream sources such as Lower Beaver Dam Creek coming out of Maryland and Hickey Run in the District.

There are many ideas of where and how progress towards the clean-up of the River’s contaminated sediments can be achieved.  The key is to settle now on some actions and get started!

Bill Matuszeski is a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River, and the retired Director of the Chesapeake Bay Program.  He also serves o n the board of Friends of the National Arboretum and on Citizen Advisory Committees for the Chesapeake and the Anacostia.