Waste-Deep in the Big Muddy

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

True story: Washington and the Anacostia River are so close, they mingle and make mud. But they needed a man -- a very unusual man, a gray-haired former hippie with a temper like a wasp -- to reintroduce them.

That is the improbable legacy of Robert E. Boone, who in the late 1980s became one of the first environmentalists working full time for the region's toxic, stinking second-most-prominent river.

The tale of his two decades on the Anacostia involves a floating corpse, a proposed island amusement park and a creek littered with hypodermic needles. There has been a good bit of shouting, mostly by him. And there have been many boat trips, as Boone took schoolchildren and members of Congress for their first glimpse of the river's hidden beauty.

Now, he is retiring, or at least semi-retiring, just as waterfront development is spreading along the banks of the Anacostia.

Many see his hand in the revival: Boone did not make the Anacostia clean, but he made it visible again, reconnecting it with a city that had used the river and then forgotten it.

"It's a violation, just a violation, of creation," Boone said while cruising down the Anacostia recently, looking at the soda bottles and basketballs that bobbed in the current. "That's what's driven me all these years -- that it's just a violation of every law of nature, what we're doing here."

The Anacostia is a short, slow-moving river, which starts near Bladensburg and empties into the Potomac River at Hains Point, but it squeezes a great deal of human mistakes into 8.4 muddy miles.

The river contains rafts of trash, which probably washed down storm drains in the District and Maryland. It is regularly fouled by human waste, which pours out of the District's Victorian-era sewer pipes during heavy rains. It has a Superfund site on its shore at the Washington Navy Yard and tumors on its catfish, a problem linked to man-made chemicals.

In recent decades, these insults have been made worse by isolation. The Anacostia was blocked off from neighborhoods by highways, woods and military installations. The people who polluted the river rarely saw it.

"I think, before then, it really was the forgotten river," said David Baron, a lawyer with the environmental group Earthjustice. "Before, people shunned that river. People were afraid of it."

By "before," Baron meant before Robert Boone.

Boone, 67, grew up in North Carolina, the son of a dry-cleaner. He came to environmentalism late, after a life that was remarkable for its spirituality and almost Forrest Gump-like in the variety of its adventures.

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