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Waste-Deep in the Big Muddy
Advocate for the Anacostia Worked to Clean Up the Long-Fouled River. Now, as Robert Boone Steps Back, the Waterway Is Being Rediscovered.

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.

He had trained in psychoanalysis until, he said, "I just began to see through Freud." He studied Buddhism while in Hawaii with the Army and went to India to learn yoga and meditation. He started a macrobiotic restaurant in Upstate New York and gave away brown rice to hungry concertgoers at the Woodstock festival in 1969.

Boone came to the Washington area in the mid-1980s to stay close to a son from a previous marriage. An environmental agency hired him to work on the Anacostia.

He said the river, a cesspool at the heart of a world capital, spoke to him as a spiritual crime. "We are here to be stewards of this. We are the pinnacle of creation," he said. "And we have let down our mantle."

In 1989, Boone co-founded the nonprofit Anacostia Watershed Society, which helped defeat plans to build an amusement park and a freeway on the river's banks. The group sued the Navy for tainted runoff from the Navy Yard and joined other groups in suing the D.C. and suburban Maryland sewer systems for leaking sewage.

Boone gained a reputation as the Anacostia's angry man. Other advocates for the river -- and there are several others -- like to lobby. Boone, occasionally, yells until people start leaving the room.

"He wouldn't hesitate at all, in a room with 20 or 30 people sitting there, getting up and saying 'You are a worthless bureaucrat!' " said Hamid Karimi, deputy director of the D.C. Department of the Environment.

Some think lobbying, in the final analysis, might have worked better. "Almost the wrong kind of person for the town," Karimi said of Boone.

Boone said the state of the river makes him angry. Proof of the abuse could be seen in the flotsam that his group found during volunteer cleanups on the Anacostia. There were thousands of tires and foam coffee cups, of course, but volunteers also found a sawed-off shotgun in the bushes of Anacostia Park and a black revolver on Kingman Island in the District. In Watts Branch, an Anacostia tributary that runs through Northeast Washington, clients of a nearby methadone clinic would leave behind their used needles. Cleanup volunteers would store the syringes in soda bottles to keep them from sticking anyone.

And in the late 1990s, Boone was among a small group that found a man's swollen body floating in the river.

Boone said his goal was to show people that the infamous Anacostia also had a lovely side. Over the years, his group has taken more than 13,000 people out on the river in canoes, kayaks or pontoon boats, often heading to a wooded, quiet section north of RFK Stadium.

"I was scared to death, and I was like, 'Robert, this canoe is going to turn over,' " said Brenda Richardson, a community activist from Southeast. She said the trip eventually won her over to the river's cause.

"I drove across that bridge every day and never noticed it until I came in contact with Robert Boone," she said.

This year, Boone has retired as president of the watershed society, although he said he will continue doing environmental work.

He is stepping back at a strange time for the Anacostia, which remains far from clean. The D.C. government said the river's bacteria levels can still be 20 times too high. The city's plans do not envision a river that can accommodate swimmers until at least 2032.

Still, the river is becoming more of a hub of life, both animal and human. Several pairs of ospreys now nest on the river; a few years ago there were none. Rowers and kayakers paddle the waters. And, on its shores, the new Nationals Park signaled the beginning of a wave of waterfront development. "People say it's my legacy," said Anthony A. Williams, the former D.C. mayor, who went on several boat trips with Boone. "But I was really called to action, and really rose to the occasion, because of people like Bob."

Boone said he thinks the development could be beneficial if buildings are constructed to be environmentally sustainable and if the people they draw become interested in the Anacostia.

He thinks of his legacy in terms of karma. He thinks he has put some good into the world, and now, he believes, it is coming back. The city that destroyed the river now seems to be rewarding his faith.

"I know that I'm beginning to like people now," he said.

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