Just How and When Is This River of Ours Going to Get Clean? – A Primer on Toxic Sediments

Our River: The Anacostia – February 2017

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One of the most complex and confusing undertakings of our environmental agencies is the cleanup of urban rivers. It is very important that we know what is going on and what the results are likely to be and when. It’s not that we can’t trust our public agencies to do a job. It is whether or not that job meets our expectations and our desires, since every person can have a different idea what “clean” is. Let’s dive in and see what we can learn about cleaning up the Anacostia.

The Anacostia, like many urban rivers, has a problem with trash, a problem with sewage and stormwater, and a problem with toxic substances. Some of these are easier to deal with than others, and there has been more progress on some of them than on others.

In the case of our river, a great deal of progress has been made on trash reduction through traps and regional agreements on reducing sources such as charges for plastic bags. More can be done, but we know what to do and it is a question of will. Likewise, the massive DCWater project to build tunnels to handle combined sewer overflows will reduce discharges during storm events up to an estimated 98 percent.

The main remaining problem is toxic pollutants from chemicals that have entered the river and in many cases settled into the sediments along shore and in the bottom. These toxics have three origins.

The first is upstream sources. Most of the upper watershed is residential. Efforts to reduce loadings from streets and industries have limited the need, it is thought, for a lot more attention except in specific cases, but additional effort is needed to investigate possible upstream sources.

The second is industrial sites along the tidal river, many of which are no longer in use but have residual toxics in the soils and groundwater. The Navy Yard, where munitions were manufactured for over a century, is the only official Superfund site along the river and is involved in an ongoing effort to clean up its industrial sites, as well as the soils, groundwater, and shorelines.

Pepco recently signed a consent decree with the Justice Department and EPA to pay $1.6 million and take remedial actions with respect to metals-contaminated stormwater runoff from its Benning Road service center, the former site of a powerplant. Pepco is cleaning up soils and other parts of the property under a consent decree with the Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE). The company has invested over $2 million to control onsite sources of contamination. It has agreed to pay penalties for any future violations, as well as $500,000 if it fails to get its stormwater control project in operation.

Farther downriver on Buzzard Point, a rock and gravel operation, Recycled Aggregates and John Driggs Company, settled recently with EPA and paid a $32,400 penalty for discharging contaminated stormwater into the Anacostia without a permit. There are also ongoing cleanup activities at the Washington Gas Company site above the 11th Street Bridge, and an action is likely to start soon on Poplar Point on the Anacostia side above the South Capitol Street Bridge.

The third set of sources are the sediments in the river itself which either arrived with toxics attached or have absorbed them from the water above or the groundwater below. They are the focus of a major undertaking by DOEE and the National Park Service, which owns the river bottom. Known as the Anacostia River Sediment Project, it is critical to restoring the river to be swimmable and fishable. This is the undertaking that it is most important to watch, to understand, and to weigh in on. The project aims to characterize the sediment contamination, investigate historic and current sources, assess the risk to humans and the river, develop cleanup alternatives, provide for public comment, and choose a remedy and implement it.

The Anacostia River Sediment Project has many parts and is an alphabet soup of reports and documents. The process unfolds something like this, with estimated times for each stage.

  1. Remedial investigation, called the RI for short, is intended to identify the contaminants, where they are, how they got there, and how to get at the sources. In the case of the Anacostia the RI is being done in two phases. Phase 1 was completed in October 2016 and covered the “what” and “where” issues. Phase 2, underway now, will be completed in fall 2017 and will identify where the toxics are coming from and how to capture them. The findings of each phase will be available for public review and comment. The project work plans, Phase 1 RI Report, and response to comments are posted on DOEE’s website at www.doee.dc.gov/AnacostiaSediment.
  2. A feasibility study sets out a range of possible ways to address the contamination. It arranges tools, techniques, and processes as alternatives which are then evaluated according to effects on human and river health, time, and cost to meet cleanup goals and expectations. This is to be completed by late 2017.
  3. A proposed plan will lay out a cleanup schema and a set of alternatives for how to carry it out. Scheduled for completion in January 2018, it attempts to balance technical, social, and economic considerations. It is critical that it receive close public review.
  4. The record of decision, or ROD, is the most important of all these documents because it sets out the final decision of the agencies on the alternative remediation plan that will be implemented. It includes site history, characteristics, community participation, enforcement activity, extent of contamination, and the remedy. Part of the ROD will analyze how quickly a remedy will meet cleanup objectives. It is to be ready in June 2018.

5 and 6. Remedial design and remedial action are the steps to implement the ROD. The design is to be finished by June 2018 and the action is to then get underway. Everything is to be completed by 2024, which may seem a long time, but six years to deal with the amount of sediment and degree of contamination may be what is needed.

The DOEE has prepared a community involvement plan to engage the public throughout the process outlined above. The idea is to encourage comments on the documents, provide access to social media sites, undertake stakeholder interviews, provide fact sheets, hold public meetings, and provide information repositories. Speaking of which, the community involvement plan as well as many of the documents discussed above and others are now available, or will be when completed, through the Anacostia River Sediment Project page noted above. Check it out.

What are the likely critical issues with the public as this process moves forward? I foresee four.

How Clean Is Clean?
The law requires that the river be cleaned to a clearly identified background level, but there is no easy answer to what the normal background level should be for an urban river surrounded by a lot of human activity. The level identified by the project is a bit unclear, but it seems to be the Potomac River above any influence by the DC metropolitan area. While this seems reasonable, some think the goal should be for a more pristine river or some combination of relatively clean East Coast rivers.

How Is ‘Fishable and Swimmable’ to Be Defined and When?
This is closely related to the issue above, since the background level will determine the acceptable levels of toxics still in the river. There is also the question of how often swimmers should expose themselves to the water and how often the fish can be safely eaten. The law is flexible on these points. The goal is to complete the cleanup by 2024. This is the date that environmental groups have set for a fishable and swimmable river, but the city claims that it will take some time for the river to recover from the restoration work and any additional work needed to run clean throughout.

How Can We Be Sure the Sources Will Be Cleaned Up on a Similar Timetable?
The nature and extent of tributary sources of toxics is an issue over which there seems to be some disagreement. The pace of cleanup of the industrial sites along the tidal shoreline, especially with respect to nearshore sediments and groundwater, is also a factor. Will all these pieces be coordinated so there is some assurance that once the river is clean it will stay that way?

Will Contaminated Sediments Be Capped or Removed?
This is a key question and the one most likely to run into resistance from the city and the Park Service. Removal is substantially more costly than capping in place, so the bias will be to cap. Yet we are dealing with a very dynamic tidal system with frequent and substantial flushes of stormwater. Is it safe to say the clean sediment caps will stay in place? Many of the candidate areas for capping are shallow, and once capped could interfere with recreational boating. This is likely to be the main area of contention with the public as the effort moves toward its record of decision.

Stay tuned as the effort moves toward resolution. The Anacostia River Sediment Project is in good hands and has the right goals. But it does require constant public alertness to assure that the right options are chosen for the long-term health of the river and its users.

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River. He is the retired director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a DC member of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River, and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.