“The river is a mess, sick with pollution,” Tutman said. “But in the end, we’ll be the ones that suffer.”
The Patuxent, once known as “Maryland’s greatest river,” is a source of water for more than a million residents in the D.C. area. As one of the top 10 tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay, the river will have a say in whether the nation’s largest coastal estuary gets cleaned up.
Along its 110-mile journey, beginning just north of Howard County, there are 36 wastewater treatment facilities. Nearly 1.5 million people live within the Patuxent watershed — the area that drains into the river — and when they flush, tons of waste gets processed and pumped into the waters.
In 2007, the Patuxent River Commission, composed of scientists, government officials and environmental activists, issued a report — co-authored by Tutman — citing “urbanization and overdevelopment” in the watershed as major contributors of pollution in the river.
Other culprits included a coal-fired power plant, agricultural operations and some military installations along the river.
The report, Patuxent River 20/20, sounded a hopeful note: that with a clear vision and determination the river could be healthy again by the year 2020.
An indication of how much progress had been made came in 2018 when the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science issued a report card on river quality in the area. The Patuxent got a D.
Tutman thinks it ought to be an F. Not for the river, but for the humans who have become numbed to pollution and fail to appreciate our need for clean water.
“We can hardly imagine the clarity of the water and the bounty of life that it sustained when Algonquin-speaking Native Americans lived here 400 years ago,” Tutman said. “We have been poor stewards of the land.”
He recalled swimming in the river as a boy and later becoming a volunteer guide, leading children and adults on river walks and canoe and kayak trips. As he noticed the river becoming dirtier, he began organizing river cleanups.
But conditions continued to worsen. As more housing developments and industries encroached upon the river, more chemicals began showing up in water tests, he said. The river began developing what environmentalists call “dead zones,” oxygen-deprived areas where all life has died.
In 2004, Tutman gave up a career as an independent television producer and joined the Waterkeeper Alliance, a global nonprofit that advocates for clean water. There are more than 300 “waterkeepers” and “riverkeepers” in 40 countries, each one an advocate for a polluted waterway or, as Tutman put it, the “voice of the river.”
He founded the Patuxent Riverkeeper and took up the mantle as a public voice of the river — the river with which he had so often communed.
So far, he has filed 19 lawsuits against alleged polluters — 12 of which went to trial and eight of which his side won. Victories included the 2017 closing of the NRG coal-waste disposal site in Brandywine.
Coal waste, which contains arsenic, a known carcinogen, and other harmful chemicals were seeping into groundwater within the Patuxent watershed.
Brandywine is a predominantly black community. Residents had been fighting to have the site closed for years, all the while being plagued by a polluter that should never have been allowed to operate near them in the first place.
The victory was also a win for environmental justice, which Tutman believes is a more effective rallying cry than appeals that do not include helping people.
“When you hear calls to save the Chesapeake, it usually means saving oysters or some animal or plant and not everybody is going to respond to that,” he said. “But if you make an appeal for justice — say, let’s help people who are being harmed by pollution on these rivers, let’s make it so that pregnant women can drink tap water without harming their unborn children, or making sure kids can wade into a river and not get sick from flesh-eating bacteria — then one day you just might find the oysters are back and bigger than ever.
“I believe if you focus on helping people, you get more people helping and a better environment becomes a byproduct.”
Some coal waste at the Brandywine site came from the Chalk Point power plant, which is next to another predominantly black town — Eagle Harbor, at the southern tip of Prince George’s County. Both are on the shores of the Patuxent River, and residents say that a sludge-like discharge from the power plant can be thick along the shores. Step in it, and you could end up stuck in the water, one told me.
Tutman had hoped the Chalk Point plant would not be able to find another place to ship the coal waste and would have to move.
Last week, however, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed the decision to shut the Brandywine site on a technicality.
The court found that the Prince George’s County Council, which had voted for the closure, had exceeded the days allowed for public testimony in the case.
The merits of the case had not been in dispute.
Nevertheless, the coal waste site had been approved to reopen.
“That’s how it goes with these kinds of fights,” Tutman said. “You win some, you lose some. Then you go back and win some more. We are not giving up.”
For Tutman, there is always more cleaning up to do.
Two weeks ago, he was among 300 residents gathered at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, concerned about reports of a potentially deadly chemical being found in the waters near the facility. (The station is located where the Patuxent River empties into the Chesapeake Bay.) A water sample taken from St. Inigoes Creek and tested by an independent lab in Michigan had unsafe amounts of polyfluoroalkyl, also known as PFAS, which can cause cancer, liver damage and thyroid disease.
Patrick Gordon, the public affairs officer for NAS Patuxent River, issued a news release that said the Navy planned to conduct PFAS sampling at 18 sites at the installation.
David Steckler, who runs the installation’s environmental restoration program, told the gathering that the Navy is “extremely early in the process” of testing the sites.
“It’s a lengthy process,” he said. “If we come to the end, and we find a site that needs to be cleaned up to protect human health and the environment, we will do so.”
Tutman noted that the Defense Department is already facing $2 billion in PFAS cleanup liabilities and that residents should be prepared to push for answers.
A report in January issued by the Environmental Working Group, a D.C.-based environmental activist organization specializing in chemical research, concluded that drinking water in the District and Prince George’s County contained levels of PFAS that the EWG considered unsafe.
The report acknowledged that the amounts were within the legal limits. But given the toxicity of the PFAS and the Trump administration’s efforts to block a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of the chemical, “legal does not mean safe,” the report said.
Tutman imagined that the tests showing PFAS in the river and then in the drinking water was a message from the Patuxent River.
“It’s saying, ‘I’m resilient, I’ve been here a long time and I can keep coming back and getting better if you stop putting feces and other crap in me — or else, I’ll come back and get you,’ ” Tutman said. “I think that’s what’s happening now.”
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.