Anacostia cleanup goal at issue

Volunteers clean trash from a tributary in an effort organized by the Anacostia Watershed Society.
Volunteers clean trash from a tributary in an effort organized by the Anacostia Watershed Society. (Jahi Chikwendiu)
By Christy Goodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2010

An extra 600 tons of trash a year. That's what the federal government wants removed from the Anacostia River, where empty water bottles, soda cans, food wrappers and plastic bags create floating islands and strew the banks.

The Environmental Protection Agency approved the first multi-jurisdictional trash limit for the river last week under the Clean Water Act, requiring the District and Montgomery and Prince George's counties to ramp up their cleanup efforts.

If a locality does not meet or attempt to meet the requirements within its five-year management plan, it could face a penalty of $37,500 a day per violation, according to the Clean Water Act.

Skimmer boats owned and operated by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority already take about 400 tons of trash out of the Anacostia each year. Earth Day volunteers for the Anacostia Watershed Society removed 25 tons from the river in April. But there are still 58 pieces of trash for every 100 feet of river length, local officials said.

Some environmental activists say that 600 tons might not be enough. Jon Devine with the Natural Resource Defense Council said the federally approved pollution budget should "require a virtual elimination of trash."

"It is just a pretty risky approach, in my view, to rely on the precision of that estimate as the entire basis for the area's obligations toward trash," said Devine, who fears that the federal estimate is too low and that trash will continue to pollute the river.

Regional legislators signed a "Trash Treaty" five years ago with an environmental organization, the Alice Ferguson Foundation, to have a trash-free Potomac watershed, which includes the Anacostia, by 2013. The District and Maryland worked with the EPA to develop the Anacostia's new "pollution diet."

"We could have argued for months on what is objectional [amounts of trash] and what is not, or we could just get started on fixing the problem," said Richard A. Eskin, director of the Maryland Department of the Environment's Science Services Administration. "In principle, I agree with their objection, but I didn't know how to get us all to the answer we can agree on in the time that we had."

There are about 15 pollution limits in place to reduce fecal bacteria, nitrogen and other pollutants in the water.

"We need to meet all water-quality standards for bacteria, for nutrients, for trash. In that sense, they are all equally important. We can't let them go by the board without addressing them," Eskin said.

But trash has always been a very visible and steady problem in the highly urbanized watershed.

"To me, it is the number one issue in the public's mind of how they enjoy and use the river," said Jon Capacasa, director of the U.S. Environmental Protection's Mid-Atlantic Water Protection Division.

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