Monday, for Martin Luther King Day, I joined the Georgetown Conservation Corps on a clean-up at Pope Branch Park in Anacostia. It was organized by the Pope Branch Park Restoration Alliance in conjunction with several local and national organizations, and it was the Alliance’s fifth annual clean-up, in honor of Dr. King and the Alliance’s founder, Joseph Glover. We spent the morning picking up trash along the railroad tracks and residential streets near the park, which surrounds part of the Pope Branch Creek, a tributary of the Anacostia River.
The GCC, which is part of the Center for Social Justice, has an ongoing partnership with the Earth Conservation Corps, which is one of the groups working with the Pope Branch Park Restoration Alliance. According to Scott Breen (COL ’11), one of the group’s leaders, the GCC works on community service and environmental education events with members of the ECC. Their mission is the following: “To address issues of environmental justice by providing outreach and environmental education to communities and community organizations that lack sufficient resources.”
Anacostia is one of the most disheartening examples of what happens when in the absence of such environmental justice. This neighborhood in southeast D.C. is named for the Anacostia River, which runs for eight miles southwest from Maryland into the Potomac. Known as the District’s “Forgotten River,” the Anacostia is so polluted that it is unsafe to either swim or eat fish from it. As the Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS) explains, raw sewage, deposited at a rate of 2 billion gallons per year into the river from Washington sewers, is a central problem. So is storm water runoff, which the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates as constituting 75% to 90% of the river’s pollution. Then, of course, there is litter and refuse that humans directly discard or are left in the streets and wash into the river. About 20,000 tons of trash are dumped annually into the river. The result is not just damage to and destruction of natural environments, but health hazards to local communities.
To some extent, geographical factors are at play. As the NRDC explains, “Because the Anacostia is relatively flat and extremely tidal, it moves -- and flushes itself -- slowly, making it especially vulnerable to contamination.” But in the case of the Anacostia, geography has merely exacerbated human abuse and neglect.
As D.C. grew and developed, pollutants like toxic elements, bacteria, viruses, and heavy metals became more abundant, at the same time that the landscape was stripped of the natural barriers that might have prevented those harmful substances from clogging the waterways. In addition, D.C.’s outdated and inefficient sewer system, in which both storm water and sewage flow through the same pipes, leads to regular overflows when it rains. Finally, everyday human carelessness and a lack of efficient, organized sanitation have led to the accumulation of litter and runoff from streets into the river.
These problems are serious, but they can be solved. Unfortunately, because the Anacostia runs through historically impoverished and lower-class neighborhoods of D.C., it has garnered much less attention and funding from local, state, and federal government than have the Potomac and other revitalized rivers in the past. Only recently have concerted efforts begun to clean up the Anacostia River and, by extension, improve the environment for the communities in Southeast D.C. that surround the waterway.
WASA (Washington Water and Sewer Authority) has agreed—in response to a lawsuit from the AWS—to invest $140 million in rehabilitation and maintenance of the watershed, and EPA is requiring DC to create a storm water management program for the river. Private organizations and non-profits like the AWS, the NRDC, the Anacostia Riverkeeper, and the Pope Branch Park Restoration Alliance are promoting efforts like low-impact development, monitoring of wetlands, invasive plant removal, and storm drain stenciling to make a more immediate, direct impact.
Our trip to Anacostia last week was only for a few hours, and we were picking up trash rather than addressing the Anacostia’s or even the Pope Branch Creek’s fundamental problems. As one coordinator from the Alliance remarked to me, “The sad thing is that by tomorrow morning, this whole area will just be covered with litter again.” It’s true that the efforts of a relatively small group of people on a relatively small tributary of a relatively small river can hardly have created much long-term change for this historically devastated area.
But it’s a start, and if anything, it’s important for us as students to become involved with causes like this in the city. Small steps like these can lead to greater understanding of and engagement in environmental issues, especially those issues which, like the case of the Anacostia River, are compounded by the absence of environmental justice.