Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the first name of a spokesman for the Washington Gas Light Co. He is Ruben Rodriguez. This version has been corrected.
Washington Gas Light Co. has agreed to clean a section of land along the Anacostia River that it contaminated with harmful chemicals for more than a century, federal officials announced Monday.
As part of an agreement involving the utility, the U.S. Interior Department and the D.C. government, Washington Gas will also pay for a comprehensive investigation of toxic contamination of soil and groundwater on the site. It will repay nearly $1 million to federal agencies for investigations that revealed how badly the river was fouled where the company once processed gas.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar called the agreement “a milestone in our efforts . . . to transform what was once known as America’s forgotten river into a model urban park.” A walkway is slated to traverse the area once when the work is done.
But the Anacostia Watershed Society said much is unknown about the agreement, including its cost and how the utility will be held accountable for its work. “How much they’re committing is really unclear at this point,” said Brent Bolin, director of advocacy for AWS.
A Washington Gas spokesman said contaminated soil will be removed and replaced with clean soil over four acres. The spokesman, Ruben Rodriguez, declined to give an estimate of the cleanup cost.
For 60 years, from 1888 to 1948, the utility manufactured gas feed stocks at a facility along Water Street SE, just upstream from the 11th Street Bridge on the river. Waste created by the gasification process contained harmful organic compounds such as benzene, cyanide, arsenic and other contaminants such as tar, coal and coke.
The company continued to use the “East Station” site intermittently until it was closed in 1983 and demolished in 1986. Between that time and 1999, six major federal environmental investigations were performed at the site.
“This has been a cleanup 100 years in the making,” Bolin said. “These are known carcinogens. They are an exposure risk for people who fish, people who boat, people who row.”
The Anacostia River was called “one of the most polluted waterways in the nation” in a May report by the advocacy group DC Appleseed.
With its low flows, the Anacostia cannot easily flush pollutants, many of which come from combined sewage runoff and from chemical waste from the Navy Yard, according to the report. It called on the federal government, as one of the river’s biggest polluters, to take a larger role in the cleanup.
Despite of a 2006 federal decision that called for a cleanup amid hiking trails, yacht clubs and a fishery, work was never completed, Bolin said. AWS filed a suit in August to compel the utility and federal government to act. “You couldn’t get the federal government to care about this issue until the Obama administration,” Bolin said.
The city has been acquiring land nearby with an eye on its Anacostia Waterfront Initiative, a vision for recreational, residential and commercial development along the river.
“This settlement is a major step forward in restoring this vibrant river . . . [and] protecting habitat and wildlife,” Salazar said.
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