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Undoing the Damage To Sacred Banks

Interfaith Effort Plans Revival of the Anacostia River, Replenishment of Its Neighborhoods

By Bill Broadway
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2004; Page B09

Just above Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium near a tributary leading to Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, Doug Siglin points to a blue-crested bird rising above the Anacostia River.

"That's a belted kingfisher, really beautiful," he says while doing one of the things he loves most: giving first-time visitors a boat tour of the river.

Some animals still carve out homes on the Anacostia River, whose eight-mile stretch between Fort McNair and Bladensburg once was one of the richest wetlands areas in the world. (Photos Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

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Back at the dock, 2,000 yards from the Capitol and several hundred feet from the left-field fence of the proposed baseball stadium in Southeast, a dead bullhead catfish lies on the pier. Siglin isn't sure how the bottom feeder got there, but he does know one thing: The Anacostia's brown bullheads have the highest cancer rate found in any fish variety in the country.

The beautiful and the ugly go hand in hand in and near the Anacostia River, whose eight-mile stretch between Fort McNair and Bladensburg once was one of the richest wetlands areas in the world.

"The Creator created this river as a healthy system. It had been in balance," said Siglin, director of the Anacostia River Initiative, a program of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. But generations in the District and Maryland, he says, have "re-created a very polluted river . . . with only a fraction of the biology it once had."

A Methodist-turned-Episcopalian, Siglin, 48, believes the Creator has given people of faith -- Christians and non-Christians -- the responsibility of being stewards of the Earth. And people of faith in the Washington area, he says, "should be outraged" at the putrid state of their God-given river and should work to "undo the damage."

Such thinking was the basis of the new Religious Partnership for the Anacostia River, a consortium of interfaith clergy and laity that hosted its first community meeting recently in Southeast Washington. The goal of the partnership is "to contribute to the restoration of the Anacostia River and to tangibly assist the residents of the neighborhoods around it," according to its mission statement.

Spearheading the effort are Siglin, the Rev. Clark Lobenstine of the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington and Bob Nixon, chairman of the board of Earth Conservation Corps.

Formation of the partnership was good news for the Rev. Rodger Reed Sr., 65, pastor of Campbell AME Church in Southeast and one of the speakers at that first gathering, at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.

"Anacostia once was a proud place," Reed said of the neighborhoods whose identities and character are entwined with the river. Generations of "misuse," such as the construction of pollution-contributing industries and housing developments, brought the area down, he said.

"The whole community has devolved to a sense of nothingness, gone to seed," Reed said. What's more, he said, the District continues "to pour pollution into the river where children can't go wading."

Reed was referring to one of the most unsettling aspects of Anacostia River pollution: the pouring of raw sewage into the river during heavy rains -- about 75 to 80 times a year, according to various studies.

Much of the District's wastewater system is more than a century old and combines sewage and storm drainage into a single channel that takes both wastes to the water treatment plant. During heavy rains, the system overflows and sends the combined waste directly into the Anacostia, the Potomac River and Rock Creek, with the greatest volume going into the Anacostia, Siglin said.

The presence of human fecal matter, the source of disease in many undeveloped countries, creates unhealthy conditions for waders, boaters, fishermen and anyone else in contact with the river water, according to a report by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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