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Along Potomac, an Ecological Mystery Surfaces

Mac Thornton, who likes to kayak the Potomac, inspects some of the plastic barrels that have washed up along the river's shoreline at Olmsted Island in Montgomery County.
Mac Thornton, who likes to kayak the Potomac, inspects some of the plastic barrels that have washed up along the river's shoreline at Olmsted Island in Montgomery County. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 9, 2005

Olmsted Island, a forested median that splits the Potomac River upstream from the District, is a spot where the fast-moving current coughs up debris as it crashes through Great Falls.

For those interested in one of the river's oddest ecological mysteries, it is a great place to find clues.

"There are six right here," said Mac Thornton, a kayaker who paddled out to the island in Montgomery County one recent afternoon. He swiveled to count more, pointing his finger at each new sighting. "Seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, so far."

Thornton was counting barrels: waist-high plastic drums in shades of blue, black and white. They were jumbled at his feet and hidden in the woods behind him-- obvious aliens in the landscape.

The barrels are the mystery.

Dozens, perhaps hundreds of them, wash down the Potomac every year, jostling kayakers and piling up on shorelines, environmentalists have said. The barrels have become the subject of a government inquiry, after a radio reporter opened one and found dangerous chemicals.

Amateur eco-detectives around the river have been trying to find the barrels' origins. For now, "Nobody knows," said Tracy Bowen, executive director of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, which runs cleanups along the river.

The barrels washing up are usually made of thick, sturdy plastic. Some have no writing, some are labeled as having held fruit products and others have more ominous warnings about petroleum products or hazardous materials, experts say.

They have been seen on the Potomac for two decades, some longtime residents have said. And the barrels seem to be more of a problem here than on other major rivers, though a comparison is difficult to quantify.

Rumbling through the Potomac's rapids, barrels can be a danger to kayakers, said Jason Robertson of the Takoma Park-based American Whitewater, a conservation and educational group.

"It's like a truck running into you at 10 or 15 miles an hour," he said. "You get clocked."

Another problem with the barrels is how they look. Where an old vehicle or refrigerator dumped into the river might sink and be forgotten, a bright-blue barrel stands out.


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