Troubled Waters

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

THE PROMISE of massive redevelopment in the District -- new neighborhoods, office buildings, parks, retail complexes, and baseball and soccer stadiums, with the Anacostia River as an urban centerpiece -- could wind up mired in muck. As reported in distressing detail by staff writer David A. Fahrenthold, the river is disgracefully dirty, brimming with trash, toxic chemicals, dead animals, diseased fish and raw sewage. At least the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay have constituencies pressing for improvements in those waters; but without a groundswell to revive the Anacostia, potential developers may hold their noses and turn away.

With a ballpark already blooming near the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, city officials and the owners of the Washington Nationals have a large stake in the redevelopment of this area. So, too, will the new owners of D.C. United, who have started a public push for a $150 million soccer stadium in Southeast. If a partnership with the District government does materialize, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the D.C. Council should insist that the team's owners ante up for a serious Anacostia River cleanup. Similar commitments should be extracted from other developers. After all, it is in their interest.

One revolting source of pollution is the District's sewer system, designed more than 100 years ago to dump raw sewage into the river during rainstorms. The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority has a plan to dig huge tunnels under the city to store this flow and then treat it to remove the sewage. But the agency's chief of staff, Johnnie Hemphill, told The Post that the project could take close to 20 years and $2 billion. This month, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a lower court's ruling that set stricter caps on the amounts of pollutants dumped into the Anacostia. Jerry N. Johnson, the water and sewer authority's general manager, said the new rules may slow the project while officials figure out how to adapt. But the cleanup must go faster, not slower.

Maryland, home to more than 85 percent of the Anacostia's watershed, must help, too. Chesapeake Bay Foundation President William C. Baker says runoff from Montgomery and Prince George's counties is a significant river pollutant. The foundation is pressing for stricter requirements in federal Clean Water Act permits. No single pollution solution exists, but until federal, state and local officials develop a sense of emergency, the Anacostia River will continue to dampen the chances of economic vitality in the core of this region.

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