The District government is among the region’s leaders when it comes to green initiatives, but more work must be done, environmental advocates said.
The city ranks third in the country for buying power from renewable energy sources. It leads the nation with about 1 million square feet — nearly 30 acres — of green roofs. But none of the District’s waterways is considered clean enough for fishing or swimming. Recycling statistics show the District lags its neighbors.
“This is a lot cleaner, greener and a healthier place to live than I think most Washingtonians realize,” said Christophe A.G. Tulou, District Department of the Environment director. “We’ve just begun really to pursue a lot of these initiatives in earnest.”
One of the targets for the city is storm water that rushes through paved streets and sidewalks, picking up trash, oil and other pollutants as it flushes into area waterways. The District established the RiverSmart home and school programs to teach residents and students the best ways to keep water on their property with rain barrels and gardens. The city recently won an $8 million settlement with CSX to help clean the Anacostia River.
“The real goal here is to make sure everybody in the city is benefiting from a focus on environmental improvements,” Tulou said.
City employees are planting more trees, paving less and redeveloping the waterfront, said Brent Bolin, advocacy director for the Anacostia Watershed Society. But three toxic sites along the river — Kenilworth Park, Pepco’s Benning Road power plant and the old Washington Gas site at 12th and Water streets in Southeast — must be remedied, he said.
Officials took charge, saying they could clean up the sites faster than the federal government, but the first cleanup agreement for the Benning Road power plant “was totally inadequate,” Bolin said.
“These are big, expensive, complicated cleanup sites. They have never done it before. It is a big thing to bite off and try to chew,” Bolin said. “Their heart might be in the right place, but can they really handle it? I think the jury is still out on that.”
The society works with government, but it also organizes some 15,000 volunteers a year to pick up trash, plant trees and make personal connections to the river.
“We are trying to ingrain it beyond one field trip or one classroom” visit, said Eric Sibley, stewardship chairman. “You need more than one afternoon to get all the things through that are important for them to understand,” such as what helps the river and what they can do with it, he said.
The society’s Earth Day event this month had 2,000 volunteers at 20 sites in the District and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. They collected 82,000 pounds of trash, including about 300 tires.
“I think there has been a green renaissance for Washington in the last eight years or so,” said Jim Dougherty, conservation chairman of the Sierra Club’s D.C. chapter. “The movement is supporting the government and pushing them and applauding them.”
The Sierra Club wants mandatory recycling to boost the District’s combined recycling rate of 33.5 percent. Another big initiative this year is to close all coal-burning power plants in the region.
From events, such as testing mercury in hair samples, to large-scale protests, the Sierra Club is “trying to reach out to anybody who is willing to listen,” volunteer Jon Erickson said.
“Just make them realize the challenges our planet faces and how it could effect them and their community,” he said.