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Salve for River Sickness

Editor's Note: Suzanne Halekas is one of Earthjustice's Foundations Officers. Before she came to the San Francisco, CA headquarters office, she worked in the Washington D.C. office. In 2006, Suzanne shared this recollection of her second day on the job.

I get seasick just looking at a boat. Once aboard, the first hint of rocking, repetitive, rhythmic waves leaves me incapacitated by nausea—wide-eyed, swirling-headed, with a tension that catches at the back of my tongue and makes life seem not worth living any longer. I'm allergic to Dramamine and its many pharmaceutical cousins; the ginger pills peddled by natural food stores now make me nauseated by association; stretchy, navy-blue acupressure bracelets are unworthy adversaries that also clash with my entire wardrobe. Certain unnamed acquaintances have suggested plant-based solutions, but I have chosen to make peace with the fact that I am one of those feeble people who will never indulge in a spontaneous weekend boat trip. I would have been profoundly unpopular had I been raised in circles that summered.

So, when, on my second day at Earthjustice, my bosses told me delightedly that the following week we would all be taking a boat ride on the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., I blanched. I was fresh out of college in my first job that didn't require a uniform; I refused to launch a reputation as the new girl who lost her cool off the back of the boat, or as the spoilsport who stayed back at the office. I desperately wanted to appear bright, energized, involved.

So I didn't tell them.

As we boarded the small boat at a dock in Southeast Washington, the thick smell of sunblock and exhaust hung in the heavy summer heat. Heading off up the river, I focused intently on the rushing water, certain that gazing at scenery would end me. Sprays of cool water felt good against my face, and would have felt even better had I not known that David Baron, one of the attorneys on the boat with me that day, was in the midst of a legal challenge against the city for allowing raw sewage to flow into this very river.

The Anacostia is what is referred to in lawyerly circles as "impaired." That means it falls short of the goals the Clean Water Act lays out for all U.S. waters—that they be swimmable, fishable, and someday even drinkable. To get there, federal regulators must approve or establish daily limits on all the pollutants that afflict the waterway. When we took to the river that day, those limits had not even been set, much less met. Navigating this river whose pollution levels constituted a known public health danger, and whose watery rhythms threatened my own sense of well-being, I concentrated intently on not getting sick.

As we made our way farther from the industrial yards and abandoned piers where we had launched, the attorneys pointed out great blue herons and other birds, nesting and foraging on the banks. They pointed out Kingman Island, a 94-acre forest where they had once used litigation to block an amusement park development that would have stamped out wildlife habitat and marred the river with the noise, lights, and pollution that accompany crowds.

We motored on; my breakfast stayed where it belonged.

Trees and grassy hillsides surrounded us. Moments before we had been standing in a parking lot in one of the grittier parts of town and now we seemed so many miles away. We were one of only a few boats on the river that day. Rarely enjoyed by the city's residents, the Anacostia is D.C.'s forgotten river. During and after heavy rains, the overwhelmed sewer system dumps untreated sewage straight into the river. Urban runoff draws oil, pesticides, and the rest of the city's grit and grime into the river as well. Community-wide fish fries that were once a Sunday afternoon tradition have become nearly obsolete. Over time the city's residents grew tolerant of the warning signs posted along the river's banks, and began to forget a time when things were any different.

But Earthjustice didn't forget. For years my boat mates have been using their legal expertise to nurse the river back to health. Within five years of our boat trip, Earthjustice would bring a lawsuit that would curb the sewage overflows by more than 95 percent and a problem that had resisted solution for more than a hundred years would meet its end through Earthjustice's litigation.

Then just last month, attorney Howard Fox scored another major win. When EPA finally set those daily pollution caps for the Anacostia, and they were (big surprise) non-daily, Howard sued and won. It's crucial for the daily limits to be truly daily, instead of annual or seasonal, not just because the law demands it, but also because it protects people from pollution spikes on any given day. A seasonal average doesn't help much if water quality is far worse than the average on the day a rower takes to the river. Thanks to Howard's savvy in making this very point to the court, the murky waters we witnessed on our day on the river have a much better chance of clearing up. And so do other waters across the country, many of whose pollution caps were set in a similarly illegal fashion.

As we turned to head back to the boathouse, I realized how very sick the Anacostia was, and how much sicker it would be without Earthjustice. And as I listened to my new colleagues' stories, and their talk of strategies for saving their hometown river, I was overcome by the feeling that I had joined not just the right team, but the winning one, too. Now, six years later, I still feel the same way.

Working with civic and conservation groups, Earthjustice has continued to undertake numerous initiatives to protect and restore the Anacostia River ecosystem. More recently, in 2011 Earthjustice won a victory in federal court for people who live near and enjoy this iconic river. That court decision requires the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Maryland, and D.C. to adopt adequate limits on pollution from combined sewer overflows and stormwater systems. Earthjustice will be watching closely to see whether all of these agencies comply and adopt limits that will prevent more pollution in the river.