Sunday, August 2, 2009

Clamming Up about Toxics in the Anacostia

Last Thursday I went to a fantastic lecture at the Anacostia Watershed Society headquarters in Bladensburg. It featured a unique and lively talk given by Harriette Phelps. Dr. Phelps, who is a professor Emeritus at the University of the District of Columbia, has been using small Asian clams to do some detective work in DC. She puts the bivalves to the task of finding out where the most toxic hot spots are along the river and its tributary streams.

Dr. Phelps thinks she may be the only person using clams this way in the US, although internationally many other scientists are doing this kind of investigation. She also thinks she may be the only person looking at toxics in Washington’s “other river.”

Before listening to Dr. Phelps I had no idea that the biggest pollution problems in the Anacostia may stem from what are known as “legacy” issues. These may include dumps of old chemicals under road beds during highway construction which are now seeping out into buried stream beds, causing horrible pollution on a slow, constant basis.

And although I had heard of the pollutants which line the bed of the Hudson River in New York, I had very little info on the details of similar problems along the Anacostia. Much of what was used in the past remains with us along the riverbed, even those chemicals which have long been banned from production and use, such as Chlordane. Dredging tends to stir up the problems, and debate remains about how to best handle their remediation and possible removal.

Sitting and listening to Dr. Phelps last night made me kind of realize that in many ways, the problems of toxics along watershed have become passé to both the general public and to us as environmentalists. Although info on drinking water pollutants and stormwater runoff is plentiful these days in the news, the idea of tracking and deciding how to manage toxics in urban streams and rivers gets almost no press. But even if the topic of toxics is no longer the “in” thing to cover, the problem itself remains as fresh and new -- and horrible -- as it was in the past.

In the midst of such horror, though, I always find the AWS’ efforts to revive the big, old industrialized river are inspiring. At last night’s meeting, people talked of walking along waterways encased in concrete which run between truck stops and industrial parks, under highways, past Metro stations – all to gather info and figure out exactly who is putting what kinds of crap into the river. You realize that these people really love the city where they work in a way that others can’t even imagine. They have a unique relationship with their environment. One man talked of what he had seen while coaching a crew team of local high school students. Another described working with kids to gather samples along the banks. Still others had biked everywhere trying to figure the river out. And talking with both Dr. Phelps and AWS staff members like Jim Connolly gave me lots of food for thought about the need to balance urgency with optimism, education with advocacy, and science with security concerns. You can love a river and know it has huge problems. You can know a place and understand its warts.

Upstream here in the Sligo, where my home base is located, we sometimes think that maybe the problems could be solved if we began to reconfigure our relationship with our own yards. In much of the lower Anacostia, however, the relationships may rely more on how industry, government and those who live far from the actual banks of the river treat their environment. Changing how we think of water running through our cities has to happen if we are going to improve the Chesapeake and all of our estuaries. That means that even those who only ever see the Anacostia as they drive by on the way to work need to change how they perceive it. They have to stop thinking it is hopeless, but have to simultaneously understand that its problems are huge and fixing them should be a priority for the greater good of the entire city.

Dr. Phelps hopes to speak again this year, maybe in January at a Friends of Sligo Creek meeting. In the meantime, I hope to find out more about her work and write about it soon.

The AWS plans to host more lectures this summer. If you go, be sure to get there early so you can check out both the refurbished building and their fantastic new raingardens, in the courtyards outside. Love those eight foot tall perennial sunflowers!

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