Throng Takes On the Anacostia

Volunteers, including David Matyas, left, and Dave Strauss, focused on dead tree limbs, invasive species and trash.
Volunteers, including David Matyas, left, and Dave Strauss, focused on dead tree limbs, invasive species and trash. (Photos By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Paul Schwartzman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 1, 2007

Carlyle Howard, a 13-year-old from McLean, spent yesterday afternoon pulling beer bottles, plastic foam, candy wrappers and what seemed like a gazillion other bits of garbage from the banks of the Anacostia River.

If it appeared to be a dreary chore, she had company: her pal Emma Leiken, with whom she passed the time talking about things they like (boys), things they hate (math) and especially gross things they found.

"A bag of batteries covered in ants" was Carlyle's nomination.

The girls were among an army of volunteers amassed along the Anacostia for a major cleanup sponsored by the National Wildlife Federation. Hundreds of volunteers hauled away bags of garbage, clipped dead limbs from trees and yanked out invasive species, such as kudzu and porcelainberry vines, that choke trees and crowd out native plant life.

The Anacostia, which snakes its way through the heart of redevelopment projects in the District, including the new Washington Nationals stadium, has long been ravaged by a mix of sewage, refuse and toxic chemicals.

An estimated 20,000 tons of garbage float downstream annually, much of the junk washing up on the river's banks, environmentalists say. Another major contributor is the District's sewer system, organizers said yesterday. It was built more than a century ago and dumps raw sewage into the river during moderate and heavy rainstorms.

Josh Burch, a coordinator for Earth Conservation Corps, which helped organize the cleanup, said no amount of garbage pickup will mend the river until politicians take steps to protect the environment.

"Everyone is very good about saying they want to clean up the Anacostia River, but it's policy decisions that will make the difference," he said.

Yesterday's effort on the Anacostia coincided with a cleanup on the Potomac River organized by the Alice Ferguson Foundation, in which volunteers fanned out across 359 sites in the District, Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Chad Pregracke, 32, traveled from his home in Illinois to volunteer for the Anacostia project. He works for Living Lands and Waters, a nonprofit environmental organization, and spends many weekends cleaning such rivers as the Ohio and Missouri.

What distinguishes the Anacostia, he said, glancing at the Capitol dome in the distance, is its proximity to Congress. "We're within a mile of the Capitol," he said. "There are a lot of powerful people here -- they should see it firsthand."

He and several other volunteers recounted what they had pulled from the riverbanks: zip-lock bags, lighters, straws, hypodermic needles, tampons, condoms, two safes and bottles -- many, many bottles.

"Everything you'd see in a garbage can, you see in the river," said Chris Fenderson, 30, who traveled from Iowa City for the cleanup.

A couple hundred feet away, Leon Johnson, 59, a maintenance worker who lives in Southeast Washington, dipped his fishing line into the river, which he described as "disgusting, to tell you the truth."

He was not helping with the cleanup, but he said he appreciated the effort, even if he's not entirely convinced that it will make a difference. "It's great that someone does it," he said, empty soda bottles at his feet. "But it will last a month and go back to the way it was."

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