Toxic relationship: Ecological injustice on the Anacostia

September 27, 2012

“See that fish there. Back in the early ‘60s or ‘70s, you didn’t see catfish like that.”

John Swan pulls his hook out of the mouth of what he estimates to be a 20-pound catfish. For now, it flops around on the grass. “A few years ago you could come down here and stay all day—catfish will bite anything—but you couldn’t hardly catch anything.”

Swan has been fishing from the bank of the Anacostia River for 49 years. He said he’s watched the river become clearer—and the fish become healthier—ever since the 1990s.

“There weren’t many fish in here. It was too polluted,” he said. “There wasn’t enough oxygen in the water. And the fish you caught, they were sick.”

According to Julie Lawson, Communications and Campaigns Manager at the Anacostia Watershed Society, the river’s quality degraded sharply in the post-World War II era. She referenced an unfinished concrete structure jutting off of the Kingman Island, begun in the 1930s, that was originally intended as a water gate to create a lake during high tide. “To me, that indicates that D.C. residents thought it was viable to have a swimming beach on the Anacostia,” she said, “whereas now, that’s shocking.”

The river became progressively more polluted in subsequent decades, until a new wave of development along the waterfront—and the erection of the Nationals stadium a bit farther afield—spurred awareness beyond a small group of community activists.

Ironically, the Anacostia’s struggle with sediment pollution, which blocks out light, strangling the growth of vegetation and fish, was brought about by the first big wave of development about 100 years ago, when concrete began to edge out the natural landscape that kept the storm water at bay.

“The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative [a development project administered by the District government] was a big turning point,” said Lawson. This was an indication that key players outside the community were starting to pay attention to the state of the Anacostia.

Mike Bolinder, of the Anacostia Riverkeeper Society, said residents are skeptical about the benefits of this development spurt; after all, outside investment is often a harbinger of gentrification and the attendant rent and cost of living spikes. But as far as the Anacostia is concerned, with development came private stakeholders with an interest in beautifying the visibly polluted river. As Lawson put it, “You’re not going to buy a million-dollar condo overlooking a cesspool.”


Even though Anacostia fish populations, like orange carp and dark green bass, may have regained some of their vibrancy, Swan said there is also a growing awareness among his fellow fishermen of the river’s toxicity. “These fish are big and strong,” he said, looking back at the fish still flopping its tail against the grass. “But you can’t eat them—cancer.”

According to Swan, public awareness about the extent of the river’s pollution has discouraged watershed residents from consuming fish they catch there. Specifically, he said people have taken note of media coverage of the dangers of consuming toxic fish.

However, local studies indicate that Anacostia fish feed a significant portion of the watershed population. Anacostia Riverkeeper, a local advocacy organization, recently conducted a five-year study examining anglers’ habits and reasons for fishing in the river.

“We thought it would be mainly homeless guys fishing because they need the protein,” said Bolinder. In fact, their study suggests that there are 1,000 to 3,000 men who fish regularly, with about 17,000 people total consuming the fish. “It’s a community that loves sharing.”

The study indicated that while many people do fish as a way to inject cheap protein into their diets—Wards 7 and 8 are rife with food deserts, and fish are an expensive commodity—this is by no means a primary motivation for all fishers. The Riverkeeper’s Society indicated that very few fishers are facing a fish-or-starve ultimatum. The vast majority fish as part of a community tradition that spans generations or as a way to get exercise and enjoy the fresh air.

The direct effects of consuming Anacostia fish have not been extensively studied, partly because widespread public awareness of the Anacostia is relatively recent, and partly because toxicology studies are expensive to execute.

The Environmental Protection Agency has codified the types and amounts of fish that can be safely consumed. They warn against eating any amount of catfish, carp, or eel, but condone half a pound per month of largemouth bass and half a pound per week of sunfish.

According to Bolinder, anglers often use these public health guidelines to justify whatever their consumption habits might be. “They look at this document and think, ‘I can eat some fish.’” explained Bolinder. “It’s the absolute opposite of the intended advisories.”

Furthermore, these measurements are not specific enough to accommodate for the differences in men, women, and children’s bodies. Women of childbearing age and children themselves are much more acutely affected by the mercury buildup in fish.

This advisory, established by the D.C. Department of Health, applies District-wide to rivers of varying degrees of pollution.

“What we need to be saying is, ‘Don’t eat the fish. Period,’” said Lawson.

But even that direct message might be difficult for the DOH to disseminate. The advisory is typically printed on fishing licenses, but not all people who fish have one. Many others cannot even read, either in English or Spanish. According to Lawson, the text-based signage posted along the river that refers fishermen to the DDOE website has been ineffective.

Despite Swan’s testimony that pollution awareness has altered watershed residents’ behavior, the Anacostia Riverkeeper’s study also indicated some residents’ uncertainty surrounding government claims that Anacostia fish are toxic at all. “They think, ‘I’ve been eating these fish for years and I’ve never gotten sick.’ But the sick they’re thinking about is food poisoning,” said Bolinder. “They’re not thinking about cancer. Those dots aren’t quite connected within the community.”

Even among fishermen who are aware of the attendant health risks, sharing is still an integral part of the experience. Said Lawson, “They feel a sense of satisfaction that they’ve helped their fellow man even if they know how dirty the river is.”

For those fishing out of necessity, the prospect of a distant, immediately unobservable illness presents a difficult calculation.

“You’re asking people to set aside their hunger today to protect their health 20 years from now or protect the health of a potential child.”

The Riverkeeper’s study also suggested quite a bit of skepticism about the DOH guidelines. “It’s a community that’s been lied to and a community that’s faced the brunt of damaging policy.”

The portion of the Anacostia watershed area that runs through Wards 7 and 8 has historically served as the city’s industrial dumping ground: PEPCO’s coal-burning Benning Road facility, the Kenilworth landfill, and Washington Navy Yard all have facilities in the watershed area.

All of this background pollution can make it difficult to isolate the effects of eating toxic fish as a public health hazard. Furthermore, it’s all part of the same web of pollution, with the river reflecting industrial activity on the shoreline.

The Benning Road Pepco facility was the subject of neighborhood concern back in the 1970s, when an ex-military resident named George Gurley administered a public health study in the surrounding neighborhoods. His study found elevated levels of asthma, bronchitis, and cancer. This study has never been replicated, but the EPA has extensively documented the connection between sulfur dioxide emitted from power plants and these types of negative respiratory side effects.

Last year, the decommissioned Pepco compound was almost designated one of the EPA’s “high-priority” sites, which would have qualified it to be taken over by the federal government as a Superfund site. The District government bid to take responsibility of the site, largely for fear of the stigmatization that is thought to accompany a Superfund label—these are some of the most egregiously polluted sites in the country. Some advocacy organizations, like the Anacostia Riverkeeper, testified that the District government lacked the resources to adequately remediate the site.

Navy Yard, just off the Anacostia bank, has been directly implicated in polluting the river. In 1996, the Anacostia Watershed Society sued Navy Yard under the Clean Water Act for contaminating the river with polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB.  The suit resulted in an $18 million cleanup. Navy Yard was declared a Superfund site in 1998.

Passed in 1972, the Clean Water Act required that no new pollution be added to any body of water after 1985. “We’re doing pretty good at no new pollution, especially with point-source pollution,” said Bolinder. “It’s all measurable. There’s great enforcement mechanisms in place.”

The case against Navy Yard succeeded because the AWS was able to identify them as a polluter and target them for damages. The greater legal challenge is reversing what Rebecca Hammer, a lawyer at Natural Resource Defense Council, calls “legacy pollution.” The industrial sites along the river spilled chemicals into the water for decades until any legal protections were implemented. Now, authorities find it hard to tell who caused what damage, and how much.

The heavy metals and toxins trapped in the riverbed will continue to affect the health of the fish population even after the sources of the pollution have stopped operating. A National Fish and Wildlife study found that two-thirds of the bullhead catfish in the Anacostia have cancerous sores.

When it comes to cleaning up historical pollution, policies and programs are sometimes slow to get off the ground. For Brent Bolin, Director of Advocacy at the AWS, this sluggishness might indicate the low priority level placed on lower-income communities.

In 2005, the DDOE and the EPA administered a toxicity study of the Washington Gas coal gasification facility, which sits virtually on top of the country’s oldest African American boathouse, the Seafarer Club. After a joint study by the DDOE and the EPA indicating the facility’s toxic effects went unacknowledged for six years, the Anacostia Riverkeeper and the AWS filed suit, saying they thought the plant constituted an immediate danger to public health.

Meanwhile, the EPA had reached out to the DDOE to ask why these sites were languishing, unremediated, for so many years. A cleanup plan was not drafted until 2011.

“When you ask why it took an extra five to seven years, you begin to wonder,” Bolin said.

The sources of the heavy metals and other toxins are not mysterious: they can be traced to the factories sitting at the banks of the Anacostia, or to the ineffectively sealed landfill that is now Kenilworth Park, which constantly secretes heavy metals, PCBs, and PAHs into the groundwater.

The biggest problem facing the Anacostia River, though, is inadequate infrastructure that cannot accommodate heavy rainfall.

“For the most part, the biggest threat to the Anacostia is stormwater runoff, which is, in itself, … a lot of pollution,” said Rebecca Hammer, an attorney at the Natural Resource Defense Council.

When rainwater flows into the Anacostia across the yards, streets, and parking lots, it carries with it fertilizer, heavy metals from tailpipes, pesticides, pet waste—all of these go straight into the slow-moving river.  In the absence of a natural landscape that absorbs water, this is a problem any urban waterway, but that is exacerbated by the proximity of industrial facilities and an improperly sealed dump.

The Anacostia watershed area is also outfitted with antiquated combined sewer outflows, which are also present in Georgetown. This system uses one pipe for both sewage and rainwater, periodically funneling to a water treatment plant. The system overflows in heavy storms, flushing the untreated sewage into the Anacostia.

According to Hammer, the Anacostia’s issues with sediment pollution can be traced back to the first riverside development. Unprecedented volumes of water dragged sediment into the river, and years later, this sediment came to trap the PCB’s and PAH’s emitted by the PEPCO factory—legacy pollution.

DC Water is currently undergoing a massive, federally-mandated infrastructure renovation, building giant vats to collect combined sewage during heavy rainfalls and pump out the excess.

To mitigate the amount of rainwater rushing into the river, the EPA just established new permit requirements for development along the river. All new and redeveloped facilities (parking lots, buildings, or whatever else) over 5,00 square feet have to include a way to trap rainwater on site. For 90 percent of storms, these properties will have zero runoff, and they can either dispose of or repurpose the rainwater.

Although there are other remediation projects going on, such as the D.C. bag tax which helps fund projects like environmental education and green roof initiatives, the CSO is among the most ambitious, costly undertakings. According to Hammer, these two programs will most drastically improve the water quality in the Anacostia.


“I’m constantly telling people, ‘Don’t call it a forgotten river,’” said Lawson, referring to the long time reputation of the Anacostia. The nickname came from a place of environmentalism, used by people who lamented that the rest of the city had seemingly forgotten the river as it became more and more polluted.

One of Lawson’s priorities for raising awareness is to shift public conception of the Anacostia from a polluted wasteland “over there,” to a place where people can kayak and even fish recreationally. “We don’t want to put orange tape around the river.”

Bolinder agreed that interaction with the river is one of the surest ways to bolster conservation advocacy—and a major venue is fishing.

“We know that encouraging fishing at all also encourages consumption,” said Bolinder.

Bolin described the peculiar task of promoting recreation on a river that is also the focus of extensive remediation efforts as a “schizophrenic problem.”

“It’s a hard philosophical question,” said Bolinder. “How do you replace protein in the diet in a community that loves to share. …How do you preserve that dignity and that feature of a culture without exposing them to cancer?”


Still standing on the CSO next to his rod and reel, John Swan reflects on industrial cleanup initiatives that he’s seen implemented in the area. “As long as they clean it up, it’ll be good. Because it’s a lot of fun down here for everyone,” he said. “If they cleaned it up, you’d have better fish. Maybe one day you’d be able to eat them. Maybe one day you’ll be able to swim in it. Just clean it up.”

Swimming, fishing, canoeing—all of these are ostensibly guaranteed by the Clean Water Act. But this river has been neglected, or “forgotten,” for years, with minimal enforcement of the regulations that do exist.

For Lawson, the river’s history is wrapped up in the racial and socioeconomic scheme of the District. “The river has long been seen by upper socioeconomic levels as just over there, that’s where we dump our waste,” she said. “But for the African Americans who live there, they learned to swim there because the pools were segregated. People who are alive today were baptized there, and they’re disappointed that their children can’t swim there.”

Additional reporting by Emilia Brahm

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Harriette Phelps

Recent research has identified suspended sediments from several upstream nonpoint Maryland sites as sources of human and environmental toxics to the Anacostia River. If these were intercepted by sediment pond traps the resulting clean sediment runoff could cover the DC toxic sediment “hotspots”, similar to rivers in VA and NY.