Polluted Waters Stain D.C.'s Shining Vision

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The Anacostia River, planned as the scenic centerpiece of massive redevelopment in the District, remains heavily polluted by sewage, trash and toxic chemicals, environmentalists say -- and it might be years before the river's health catches up with its new cachet.

In the city's plans, the Anacostia will soon be surrounded by a necklace of new stadiums, office buildings, condominiums and parks. A river that has come to symbolize neglect, both of its water and of the neighborhoods near its banks, will become a new hub of urban life.

But that bright vision is hard to square with the Anacostia of the present. Its channels are choked with mud and floating debris. Its catfish have tumors on their livers and lips. And, dozens of times a year, it actually stinks, from human waste dumped out by the District's sewer system.

Now, activists wonder whether a dirty river will start to hold this development back. Or maybe, they hope, all this building will speed the Anacostia's recovery by making activists out of people who are seeing its plight for the first time.

"You really cannot build a world-class city on a wrecked river," said Thomas Arrasmith, a leader at the Anacostia Watershed Citizens Advisory Committee. "You cannot have a world-class city with a sewer running through it."

The Anacostia winds its entire course inside the Capital Beltway, beginning near Bladensburg and emptying into the Potomac River 8.4 miles downstream at the District's Hains Point. It is often out of sight, though, even to those who live near the river. People have been kept away by the U.S. National Arboretum, the Anacostia Freeway and other barriers -- and the historical perception that the river isn't worth visiting.

"One of the sad things about the Anacostia: It's been so dirty for so long that people shunned it," said Joseph Glover, a Southeast Washington resident who helps monitor the health of an Anacostia tributary, Pope Branch.

If the plans on city drawing boards are followed, however, it will not be that way for long.

The marquee project of the new waterfront development effort is the Washington Nationals baseball stadium, whose steel skeleton is rising near the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. City officials hope to surround it with a new entertainment and residential district. They also plan to remake the area just to the east, adding office buildings and a three-block Washington Canal Park.

They want to turn the area around the old D.C. General Hospital into a neighborhood, extending Capitol Hill to the riverside. On the south side, a stretch of empty land called Poplar Point could be converted into a D.C. United soccer stadium or perhaps a park surrounded by a crescent of residential buildings.

"The whole purpose here is to think of the river as a great centerpiece of the city and not a dividing line," said Uwe Brandes, a vice president of the city-chartered Anacostia Waterfront Corp.

Most of the pollution the Anacostia suffers from is not the kind for which miscreants are tracked down and fined. Instead, most of it comes from obvious sources, such as lawns, sewage plants and storm drains -- within the law, or at least not the target of stringent enforcement.

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