Green Alliance Takes a Stand at Poplar Point

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, June 24, 2008

From Marc Fisher's blog Raw Fisher

Score one for the environmentalists: The battle over whether to build a soccer stadium for D.C. United at Poplar Point will move today beyond the rhetorical and into the realm of legal quicksand, as a coalition of green groups serves legal notice on five governmental entities that they are about to be sued big-time.

The Earth Conservation Corps, the Anacostia and Potomac Riverkeepers, the Sierra Club, D.C. ACORN and the Friends of the Earth have teamed with an arm of Georgetown University's law school to take the first step in a federal lawsuit against the National Park Service, the Navy, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Architect of the Capitol and the D.C. government to halt any move toward developing 40 acres of national parkland along the Anacostia River into the $2.5 billion retail, office and sports complex that the D.C. government envisions for the site.

"We're looking to use any method possible to preserve that land for people," says Glen O'Gilvie, president of the Earth Conservation Corps, a District-based group that advocates for the river and trains Washington youths to do environmental work.

"This action says, 'Clean the parkland up now, before any development starts,' " says Erik Bluemel, a lawyer at Georgetown's Institute for Public Representation, which is handling the case for the green groups. As a result of the groups' action and the legal fight to follow, "we're looking at a many-year time frame before any shovel could hit the ground."

That does not bode well for a soccer stadium, at least not in the time frame D.C. United has been talking about. Those talks with Maryland about alternate locations might pick up again, and soon.

Which would be just fine with the environmentalists, who want Poplar Point to remain entirely parkland. They also want large portions of the park that are closed to the public to be opened to all for recreational use. They are not filing a lawsuit today, but rather, as federal law requires, notifying the government of their intent to do so, triggering a 90-day period in which the officials must clean up the site or otherwise respond.

The green groups say Poplar Point was poisoned by government users over the past century, and federal studies have confirmed at least part of that story, though portions of the park have not yet been studied.

The federal government agreed in 2006 to transfer the 110-acre park to the District to boost economic development, but environmentalists say they are worried that completing that transfer before a cleanup could saddle the city with enormous costs.

For more than 20 years after World War II, the Navy had a mine research laboratory at Poplar Point, with more than 90 buildings along the riverfront. Naval personnel were trained there to identify and disable underwater mines. "There could be unexploded munitions on the site," Bluemel says. In addition, a large dry-cleaning facility that handled uniforms for personnel around the Washington area was at Poplar Point; dry-cleaning facilities often leave behind a difficult legacy of toxic chemicals.

"Any discussion about wanting this or that development on the site is really pointless pie in the sky until we know how contaminated the site is," Bluemel says.

Toward that end, federal officials have begun determining the environmental impact of development at Poplar Point, and they scheduled a community meeting for tonight, which is why the greens set their lawsuit announcement for today. (The meeting is at 7 p.m. at Matthews Memorial Baptist Church, 2616 Martin Luther King Ave. SE.)

The Anacostia River, generally listed as one of the 10 most polluted rivers in the nation, is nonetheless home to more than 25 species of fish. The Riverkeepers group recently identified more than 35 species of birds that call Poplar Point home, including bald eagles, hawks, falcons and owls.

The Architect of the Capitol used Poplar Point for many years as the site of a nursery, where flowers were grown for use in congressional offices. The D.C. government also had a nursery there, growing trees for use around the city.

"Potentially the most dangerous sections of the site have not been tested," Bluemel says.

Environmental claims are a developer's worst nightmare. Whether or not the most dire claims of the greens are correct, the process of finding out can take many years and many millions of dollars. Whatever you think of the proposed Poplar Point development, this sounds like another strong reason for the District to revive interest in the privately held land immediately adjacent to the park -- a wide-open area hungry for exactly the kind of development the city wants to put on what should be a splendid riverfront park.

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