Dev Murali and Doug Siglin each have a vision of the Anacostia River.
Murali’s is of a fish caught by one of the anglers who rely on the D.C. waterway for sustenance. Its mouth is red and grotesquely misshapen, inflamed by the tumors that afflict many of the fish in the river’s carcinogen-thick waters.
Siglin’s image of the Anacostia is one that might be difficult to envision. He waxes poetic about business booming on both banks, about recreational boating and fishing, even about children swimming in the water.
Murali’s view of the Anacostia is accurate, but both men think they can turn Murali’s reality into Siglin’s dream.
The men are part of a coalition of city and U.S. government officials, nonprofit organizations and corporations that are working to reverse the effects of decades of heavy industrial pollution on the river that cuts through Washington. The Anacostia is a strip of dirty water that is as much a cultural and socioeconomic divide as a geographic one.
It will take hundreds of millions of dollars, years of labor and possibly going to court. But the Anacostia activists think they are on an achievable path to a river that is safe, clean and swimmable.
“It’s not a question of if it gets cleaned up. It’s a question of when,” said Siglin, the executive director the Federal City Council’s Anacostia River Initiative.
Siglin’s goal? Ten years until the Anacostia is clean enough to swim in.
The District’s official goal is a bit more modest. There’s nothing in writing that promises when the city will get the river cleaned up. But in budget legislation passed in June, the D.C. Council did require that the city settle on a plan for cleaning the river by June 2018.
First, officials must determine the extent of the pollution. Right now, that’s not easy to do.
Studies have shown that up to a quarter of the river’s brown bullheads, a type of catfish that feeds on the toxin-clogged sediment at the bottom of the Anacostia, have skin tumors, and as many as half have liver tumors.
A lot of waste has been dumped into the waterway. The Navy Yard, once the world’s largest producer of naval ordnance, sits on the Anacostia and has been accused of leaking carcinogenic PCBs into the water for decades. The riverbanks have hosted a coal gasification plant, a rail yard, power and gas facilities and other heavy industry, all of which used chemicals that could pollute the water.
But which chemicals haunt the waters, and in what quantities, remains unknown.
“You’d find magma before you’d find the end of the toxins. Nobody knows how toxic it is,” Siglin said.
So as the first step toward the District’s mandate to create a plan for reviving the river, boats have started traversing its nine-mile length, taking water and sediment samples at dozens of points along the way. The District Department of the Environment hired engineering firm TetraTech to do the work. Last summer, TetraTech took 249 samples at 83 spots along the Anacostia. The work cost $2 million, according to Richard Jackson, deputy director of the District’s Environmental Services Administration.
Now those samples are in laboratories where TetraTech’s engineers are testing them for a long list of toxins, including PCBs. The firm is about to start a second phase of sample collecting, which will gather specimens at 55 additional locations.
The goal, city employees say, is to complete the testing by February and the laboratory analysis by April. Once they know what is in the water — and where — they will research what can be done.
“If the toxins are in the sediment, there’s only two things to do — get it out and take it somewhere, or cover it,” Siglin said. That means dredging — potentially digging up miles of the river bottom — or capping, which is placing a hard material over a particularly polluted spot by using chemicals that will break down the toxins over time.
Studying alternative cleanup options will take most of 2016 and 2017, the Environment Department said. By 2018, a final plan would be chosen.
Of course, officials also must figure out who will pay for the cleanup.
Federal law requires polluters to pay the cleanup costs. That means the study to be completed by 2018 will need to adjudicate blame. The parties will need to decide how much of the chemicals come from, say, Pepco’s activities on the river, how much from the CSX rail yard, how much from the Navy.
And although estimates vary drastically, the cost of the cleanup is expected to be high. Siglin said it could be $100 million; Jackson thinks it could exceed $500 million; Murali said it “easily” could be $1 billion.
The likelihood is that it will take a court battle to determine who should pay and how much.
But Jackson said he has faith that the cleanup will be funded eventually.
Murali said that modern-day limits on industrial pollution, and smarter stormwater management that keeps pollutants from running off roadways and into the river, should prevent the Anacostia from ever becoming this polluted again, after the cleanup is finished.
“At the end of the entire phase, we want to make sure that the river is much cleaner than it is right now. We want to bring the life back to the river,” Murali said. “We want to see more people fishing. We want to see people taking their boats to go out on the river. We want to see economic development, because when it looks nicer, you’ll have more business development.”
That’s a vision that he and Siglin share.
“The Anacostia has always been this divider of the city,” Siglin said. “Ultimately the significance is if we make the public land around the river nice, if we make the river clean, we’re going to knit the city back together.”