As the 50th Anniversary year of the Clean Water Act has come to a close, we want to reflect on its impact on the Anacostia River and look towards our hopes for the future.
The Anacostia River has experienced disproportionate environmental degradation and neglect since European settlement in the 1600s. Early clearcutting for settlement and agriculture, especially from tobacco farming, led to soil erosion and sedimentation in the Anacostia and limited access to the upper watershed. With inadequate sewage and stormwater systems to hold the growing population of the city, as DC grew into a booming hub, increased human and animal waste flowed freely into the river. Contaminants from industrial activity in the area have compounded this, with chemicals, heavy metals, and other waste seeping or being dumped into the Anacostia.
Washington Gas Light Company’s East Station, formerly located on the West bank by the 11th Street Bridge, manufactured gas continuously from 1888-1948. The station used coal and oil in its manufacturing process and by-products like tar and petroleum coke contaminated soil, groundwater, and river sediment. The site continued to operate intermittently until it was finally demolished in 1986.
A municipal open-air burning dump and landfill at Kenilworth Park was active from 1942-1970s, which received municipal waste from District waste incinerators, burned trash on-site, and even directly dumped incinerator residue in Kingman Lake. In addition to the contamination of the river, smoke from the incinerator severely impacted air pollution for surrounding neighborhoods and posed dangers to residents’ health and wellbeing. The site stopped open-air burning in 1970, but only after the tragic death of a young boy, Kelvin Mock. The area continued to serve as a dumping site for sewage and unauthorized construction dumping into the mid-1970s. Learn more.
With no comprehensive federal regulation limiting or penalizing these activities, industrial and city entities were effectively allowed to freely use the Anacostia as their dumping ground. This isn’t to say there was no local activism to oppose these practices, as many groups and individuals battled for the health of their communities and the river, but they lacked the legal standing to prosecute polluters. In addition to the widespread issue of stormwater runoff and sewage overflows, these stories of a couple key polluters demonstrate the state of the Anacostia before the Clean Water Act.
In 1972, the Clean Water Act was passed to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters” and has been fundamental to our battle to hold polluters accountable. The Clean Water Act allowed the EPA to create pollution control programs, set standards for industry, develop national scale water quality criteria for pollution in surface waters, and make it illegal to discharge a pollutant into U.S. waterways without a permit. This last part has been key to the advocacy work that we, and other environmental groups, have done to revitalize the Anacostia River to the state it is today.
The oldest continuously operating naval facility in the country, the Washington Navy Yard, has been a major entity along the Anacostia since its establishment in 1799. The Navy’s operations from weapons manufacturing to ship-building have included the use of PCBs (a class of “forever chemicals”), heavy metals, and hydrocarbons, which have been left behind on the site and leak through storm drains into the Anacostia.
In 1998, multiple environmental groups brought a case against the Navy and the General Services Administration for violating the CWA. They reached a settlement that required them to extensively document the pollution and implement cleanup activities including storm sewer repairs and the removal and treatment of contaminated soils. Today, the neighborhood around the Navy Yard hosts the thriving Capitol Riverfront, creating a place for the community to access and enjoy the river. This marks an important outcome of leveraging the CWA to create the clean, healthy waterways that it was established to protect.
Potomac Electric Power Company (Pepco) operated a Benning Road Facility along the banks of the Anacostia since 1906. While their power plant was shut down in 2012, the facility continued to violate the Clean Water Act permit for metals, including copper, zinc, iron and nickel, and total suspended solids (TSS). In 2015, we at Anacostia Riverkeeper, threatened to sue Pepco for their violations before the EPA finally stepped in to charge Pepco with illegally discharging hundreds of pounds of toxic metals into the Anacostia for over five years.
We also intervened during the lawsuit in 2016 to help reach a final settlement with Pepco, who had to pay a $1.6 million civil penalty and install a number of best management practices to reduce metals in stormwater entering its drainage system. To further prevent contaminated stormwater from entering the Anacostia, they also had to install an in-pipe drainage system to treat the stormwater and implement other mitigation projects to capture and treat stormwater. This marked a big victory against a major polluter and historic presence along the river, and we will continue to keep Pepco and other entities like it accountable for their actions. Learn more.
Stormwater runoff and sewage overflow is one of the biggest issues facing the Anacostia. DC’s sewer system, built over a century ago, is not equipped to effectively manage sewage for all of DC. The city’s combined sewer and stormwater system carried raw sewage along with stormwater, meaning that after heavy rainfall the system would overflow and spew sewage directly into the Anacostia. Sustained pressure from various environmental groups and a lawsuit led by Earthjustice against the city sewer utility in 1999 finally led to a settlement that required the city to enact massive changes to its sewage management system. This included a $3 billion plan to build a system of underground tunnels to capture and treat sewage overflows, aiming to reduce the amount of sewage entering the river by 98% by 2022. We have tracked fecal levels in the Anacostia with our water quality monitoring program since 2018. With continued monitoring, this will allow us to see the impact of the tunnels once they are fully in place and operational. Learn more.
We continue to leverage the Clean Water Act and other legislation to advance our mission at Anacostia Riverkeeper to make the Anacostia a fishable and swimmable river for all.
Currently, we are working in Prince George’s County to push against a real estate developer that intends to build more than 40 townhouses in or adjacent to the flood plain of the Northwest Branch of the Anacostia River in Hyattsville. We believe this developer has ignored and violated the Clean Water Act and related state laws by operating in the floodplain without obtaining (or even applying for) the necessary permits and has repeatedly dumped sediment pollution into the Northwest Branch. These actions threaten the health of the floodplain, the river, and the residents nearby. In October 2022, we sent a Notice of Intent to Sue to the developer for violating state and federal laws at the development project.
We have also expanded our monitoring programs this year to examine PFAS “forever chemicals” and microbial source tracking, to better understand the water quality of the river and to have more data to support our advocacy and legal work. Stay tuned for more information about these exciting additions to our monitoring program!
Apart from our work on the ground, we want to continue to use the CWA and expand its impact as it remains a powerful piece of legislation to protect our rivers. There is exciting activity happening in our watershed and beyond that we want to see come to fruition in the coming years:
The Clean Water Act has had an immense impact on the Anacostia’s journey to becoming a clean, healthy river for all residents in the area. We are grateful for all the work it has enabled us and other environmental groups to do to protect the river. We look forward to another 50 years of the Clean Water Act to fight for the future of the Anacostia River!
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