Aquatic Bloodhounds Unleashed In Anacostia Pollution Research

Retired professor Harriette Phelps leads a woefully under-funded campaign to pinpoint sources of pollution among tributaries of the Anacostia River.
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 4, 2008

The clam detective works cheap. Silly cheap. Sad cheap.

Her goal is to solve some of region's worst pollution mysteries -- to find the slow-leaking machinery and the long-buried pesticides that are poisoning the Anacostia River's feeder streams.

Her resources: a fanny pack. Part of an old electric fan. An assistant who just got off the night shift at Rite Aid.

And 300 mollusks that have been volunteered to die for science.

This is the unofficial and seriously underfunded campaign of Harriette Phelps, a retired professor at the University of the District of Columbia. She uses clams like aquatic bloodhounds to trace pollutants to their sources in tea-colored creeks.

Nobody with power, nobody with big-time money, seems to be taking this work as seriously as Phelps. Which is fine, really. The clam detective works cheap because she works for fun.

And a little bit for spite.

"I hate to say it, but that's their problem," that those in power aren't paying enough attention, Phelps said. "They will."

Phelps, a 72-year-old with an air of exasperated purpose, uses her clams to test tiny streams that spider web through Prince George's County and the District. They absorb what the rain sweeps down from railroad beds, highways and industrial parks, including toxins that can cause tumors in fish, and trigger advisories against eating fish caught downstream.

The streams are, in a sense, the Anacostia of the Anacostia: the most neglected, polluted tributaries of the Potomac River's neglected, polluted stepchild.

"This is pretty toxic stuff," Phelps said, standing on a bridge over Lower Beaverdam Creek, among the worst of the worst. The creek runs alongside the Landover and New Carrollton Metro stations, carrying a heavy load of toxic industrial chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. "I use the word 'open sore.' "

Even now, as the Anacostia itself has experienced new commercial development and a bloom of scientific interest, these upstream tributaries have received less attention.

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