Getting To The Bottom of It

Our River: The Anacostia

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Tidal Pool Below Pepco Property

There has been a lot of progress in the recovery of the Anacostia River in recent years, but there are plenty of challenges ahead.  DC Water has eliminated the combined sewer overflows by a huge amount – approaching their 98 percent reduction goal.  There are also large reductions in the discharge and runoff of dangerous chemicals.

There is still more to do – especially when it comes to the challenging task of cleaning up or covering over the contaminated sediments sitting at the bottom of the Anacostia in various places, and making sure they don’t move up or downstream to pollute other places or otherwise release their pollutants into the waters.

There are five major locations of contaminated sediments in the River which are in various stages of the process of being controlled.   Let’s take a look at each:

Poplar Point
These are the waters off one of the most natural and attractive parts of our shoreline, on the Anacostia side of the River above Frederick Douglas Bridge at South Capitol Street to about half-way to the 11th Street Bridge, a point where the National Park Service has its offices.

It is difficult to imagine that the sediments in this part of the River are contaminated because the adjacent land and plants look as though they have been there for a while. But the three historic uses of the area were for a DC nursery, another nursery for the Architect of the Capitol, and a receiving station for parts to support the ship-building and other industrial activities at the Navy Yard.

These all contributed chemicals and other contaminants that were washed offshore with sediments into the River for many years. The land and adjacent water areas are under a Federal CERCLA investigation to determine the extent of polluted soils on land and contaminated sediment and water offshore.

The studies are to be completed this year, and the proposal for clean-up actions in 2022.  They include borings at 72 sites, 37 existing and 40 new sites to test groundwater, surface water and sediment samples from seven sites and tidal studies to estimate sediment movement.

There are various unsolicited proposals for development of the area; the City Department of Energy and Environment is interested in building wetlands as part of the project.

Navy Yard
The Navy Yard, on the west side of the Anacostia between Fifth Street SE and the 11th Street Bridge has undergone extensive Superfund studies in recent years and a major on-site restoration effort is well underway. But with so much ship-building and other industrial activity in its history, there remain some issues of offshore contamination.

There have been studies of the offshore sediments, and a feasibility study is currently underway to decide what to do about capping, dredging, etc. The final draft Proposal is due in March 2021, with final decisions to be made this summer.

One outstanding issue is the extent of downstream restoration of water and sediment quality needed to deal with the history of releases from the facility when it had heavy industrial activity.

Washington Gas Site
This is a small site on the west side of the River just above the 11th Street Bridge.  It was the location of the delivery of large amounts of chemicals and petroleum products over many years, although today there are few buildings or materials on-site.

The study has gone through seven stages, the onshore clean-up is under way, and the process to determine what to do with offshore effects in waters targeted almost to the east bank of the River is still underway. The draft Remedial Investigation Report has been issued, and field investigations of the offshore conditions and alternative remedial technologies continue.

PEPCO Benning Road Site
This 77-acre site overlooking the Anacostia above Benning Road had the powerplant removed but remains as an active PEPCO regional service center. The Remedial Investigation was completed last March and the focus has been on certain chemicals in groundwater and how they might move toward and contaminate the River through existing outfalls. The study examines three-quarters of a mile of shoreline and nearshore waters, including a 4.2 acre tidal cove off the north end of the site.

The focus in the water is on fish consumption of contaminants. On land the effort has gone into detoxifying storm drains, repairs and treatment systems for any waters entering the River. New technologies are being tested to trap and remove PCB toxics from the cove.

Kenilworth Park
This is the area to the north of the above PEPCO Benning Road site. It is 130 acres currently managed by the Park Service with a number of playing fields. But the upper two-thirds of the property, which includes all the playing fields, is about to be turned over to the City to operate after the Park Service adds clean soils to the entire area.

The southern portion will remain under Park Service management as a natural area with low density activities such as wildlife observation. Even though the entire area was a solid waste landfill covered over with a thin layer of soil, studies indicate that the land and water absorbed into ground water or running off it has little or no impact on the River.

However, once the two-thirds of the property in its improved state is turned over to the City, one option under consideration by DC is to covert some of it to wetlands, which was what it was until the City filled it in with trash.

While those are the five areas where there are efforts underway to improve the water and sediment quality, we must remain aware of other ways that our progress can be threatened. There are two areas upstream of these sites that may be adding polluted waters and soils to the system. These are Hickey Run and Lower Beaverdam Creek.  Hickey Run enters the River at the Arboretum, which it enters under New York Avenue as a sewer after draining the areas along and between Bladensburg Road and South Dakota Avenue.

The storm sewers draining this area are separate from the sanitary sewers, but due to what appear to be illicit hook-ups, the storm sewer appears to be carrying a portion of the sanitary load directly into the River without treatment. Beaverdam Creek enters the River at the DC line after draining a large area of homes and industries along New York Avenue and Route 50 out to the Beltway. The State of Maryland is heavily engaged in finding and correcting the sources of its heavy load of pollution.

So that’s how things stand down in the bottom of Our River.

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 on the board of Friends of the National Arboretum and on Citizen Advisory Committees for the Chesapeake and the Anacostia.