Cleaning Up Legacy Toxic Sites Along the Anacostia River

For much of 2010, the Anacostia Watershed Society has been working its partners to advocate for the clean-up of legacy toxic sites along the Anacostia River. 

The "Toxics Team" is made up of the following groups:

There has been a decades-long effort to achieve meaningful clean-up of these sites, and a number of studies have been done - including an assessment of PCB and PAH contaminated sediment in the river.  Unfortunately, although the problems at these sites are well studied, little meanginful clean-up has happened to date.

Fortunately, the US EPA under President Obama has taken an interest in addressing these sites, after years of local officials begging for federal involvement.  On February 25, 2010, US EPA presented to the Anacostia Watershed Steering Committee a summary document on six toxic sites along the Anacostia.  After this presentation, District government expressed concern about the toxic clean-up issue being raised publicly while US EPA and District government were involved in ongoing discussions.  At this point, the Anacostia River advocacy community determined that it should get involved in the toxics issue so that US EPA and District government were not the only stakeholders weighing in on the issue.  After several years of focused campaigning on the issue of stormwater pollution in the Anacostia, AWS had planned to return to the issue of toxics in late 2010 - but US EPA's action moved up our timetable.

Throughout the summer of 2010, the Anacostia Watershed Steering Committee continued to press US EPA and District government about the status of the toxics clean-up.  The Toxics Team met with stakeholders and engaged in focused advocacy during this time period.  On August 16, 2010, US EPA sent a letter to the Anacostia Watershed Steering Committee outlining expectations for remediation of three of the toxic sites.

In this letter, signed by US EPA Region 3 Administrator Shawn Garvin, EPA explained that clean-up frameworks were in place at three of the six toxic sites. The letter continued that "EPA is working with DDOE to ensure that work is progressing in a transparent manner that provides for appropriate public participation under legally enforceable instruments at the three remaining sites: Kenilworth Landfill, Washington Gas Light and PEPCO Benning Road." The letter goes on to say that "If measures to comprehensively address these sites in a transparent and legally enforceable manner are not in effect by mid-December 2010, EPA intends to address these sites using appropriate Federal authorities." The implied threat is addition of the sites the Superfund National Priorities List (NPL).

District government has consistently opposed Superfund listing for these sites, citing the length of the process, lack of local control, and the "stigma" of designating a Superfund site.  The Toxics Team disagrees with these premises.  The Superfund process can sometimes be lengthy, but the steps are known and the process continues to grind on to conclusion.  Further, the Superfund process would provide federal resources and expertise, and, most importantly, a clear process with opportunities for public input.  Voluntary agreements of the type proposed by District government are prone to bogging down.  One need look no further for an example than the Washington Navy Yard, one of the six toxic sites along the Anacostia River and the only one of the sites on the Superfund National Priorities List.  This clean-up is the furthest along and also has the most nearby redevelopment.  Meanwhile, the District government and the National Park Service have had an agreement in place since 2008 regarding the assessment of toxics on the Poplar Point site.  It is the end of 2010 and the District and National Park Service have not been able to agree on a way forward at Poplar Point.  This is not the model advocates want to see at Kenilworth Landfill, Washington Gas Light, and PEPCO Benning Road.

The Washington City Paper has a good summary of efforts by the District to gain additional legal authority to deal with toxic sites in the city.  The Toxics Team fully supports the District having this authority.  However, as noted in the article, we question the rush to pass this law and to what extent that rush is motivated by the District's desire to control clean-up at these three sites.  Clean-up of these sites will be incredibly complex and time consuming no matter who is in charge, and EPA has a much longer track record (and more resources) than the District government.  We applaud the District's desire to do the right thing but question their capacity to tackle such monumental tasks.

December 15 is almost here and it will be interesting to see how this process concludes.

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