Earth Day Volunteers Get a Sickening Feeling

Members of the Student Conservation Association clear a portion of Anacostia Park of litter and weeds and add mulch, trees and flowers.
Members of the Student Conservation Association clear a portion of Anacostia Park of litter and weeds and add mulch, trees and flowers. (By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Anacostia River glistened yesterday as it wended past budding willows. Muskrats, beavers and cormorants basked in the late-morning rays. And along the shore, Earth Day volunteers piled up hundreds of black plastic bags filled with the unsightly trash they had collected from the river's eddies and banks.

Inside those black bags were endless numbers of soda bottles, plastic foam containers and candy wrappers, as well as tires, luggage and even a shopping cart. They offered a reminder that Washington's "other river" remains one of the most threatened in the country, with an estimated 20,000 tons of trash washed into its waters each year. Cleaning up the river has been the focus of considerable energy during Washington's annual Earth Day events.

"I feel sad to see the water like this," said Malik Fitzgerald, 15, a student at Merritt Educational Center in Northeast. "The water is just a reflection of us. The way we treat it is how it's going to turn out."

The volunteers hoped to burnish that reflection, and everywhere on the riverbanks -- from the Bladensburg marina down to the site of the future Washington Nationals baseball stadium -- people used nets, pitchforks and bare hands to remove the garbage. Some said they had come to the river after seeing signs on the highway about the cleanup effort. Others came with organized groups from schools, neighborhood associations, churches, businesses, and the Maryland, Prince George's County, District and federal governments. Boats on loan helped ferry them to various stretches of the riverbanks and then hauled the refuse to the Bladensburg marina.

Along with Malik, Herbert Benjamin, 16, and Donnell Kie, 15, were pulling junk out of the river yesterday morning, but they were determined to turn it into art for a contest when it hit the dock in Bladensburg. They are members of Life Pieces to Masterpieces, a D.C. program for budding African American male artists. Equipped with wire cutters and work gloves, they made a modern sculpture of a frightened man using, among other things, a Filet-O-Fish box, the shopping cart, a Shoppers' Value juice bottle, a Citgo oil can and discarded clothes.

One crew from Washington Community Fellowship Church on Capitol Hill and the city's Cornell Club worked on a section of the river under the New York Avenue bridge. They found an old chair, plastic toys and a seemingly lifetime supply of 7-Eleven cups and McDonald's containers.

"The amount of Styrofoam was amazing," said Cornell Club member Cheryl Martson. "I will never use Styrofoam again."

The team also spotted a Waste Management trash truck passing by on the bridge above them with paper and plastic debris flying out of its uncovered top and landing in the river.

"In about a second, they undid about 2 or 3 bags worth of our work," said Jim Johnston, also with the Cornell Club. "This river is beautiful, but also dirty. I don't think the city appreciates what it has."

Yet for all those who treat the river like a landfill, there are others rediscovering its beauty and value.

A bit upstream, a women's crew team from the University of Maryland was practicing. It was a sign of progress for the river: The gradual improvement of the river means more people view it as an important resource.

The cleanup was hosted by the Anacostia Watershed Society, which has spearheaded many efforts to restore the river. Robert Boone, founder of the organization, said much has improved since he first arrived to monitor the Anacostia about seven years ago. There were no crew teams practicing on the river then, but now six do. Volunteers clean up the river eight times a year.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gave the watershed society a $25,000 grant last year to help craft a strategy for reducing and removing the trash, and members celebrated their new plan at a lunchtime party for volunteers after their work. Ken Barton, of NOAA, said getting more residents to care about the river is key to that plan.

"I must have picked up 300 soda bottles this morning," Barton said. "People see trees and green and ospreys here and say, 'Oh, the river's fine.' But what they don't see are the contaminants in the sediments . . . the tumors on the fish here. . . . The more people recognize what a beautiful place this can be, the more they'll be upset about the trash."

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