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The Anacostia River

Not so long ago, the Anacostia River was the pride of the District of Columbia, flowing as a pristine ribbon for nearly nine miles from Prince George’s County in Maryland to where it empties into the Potomac. Unfortunately, the river has been abused for decades, making it one of the most polluted rivers in the nation.

The reason? State and federal governments failed to protect this cherished watershed. One of the major pollution sources is raw sewage, with a half-billion gallons ending up in the river annually, due to outdated and poor-functioning sewer systems. These discharges contain bacteria at levels thousands of times more toxic than permitted by public health standards. Discharges from the District's separate storm sewers contain a dangerous mix of heavy metals, oils, pesticides, bacteria and other harmful pollutants. Without proper treatment, these substances permeate the environment and drain into the Anacostia River from industrial sites, construction lots, urban streets and residential areas. Since public officials have failed for decades to address this problem the Washington, D.C. office of Earthjustice office has been working for many years to protect and restore the Anacostia River ecosystem. Working with civic and conservation groups, Earthjustice has undertaken numerous initiatives to protect the Anacostia.

Earthjustice has filed administrative and court actions to curb discharges of metals and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Anacostia River from the Washington Navy Yard and adjacent Southeast Federal Center, the site of a 200-year old shipbuilding yard and ordnance factory. These actions have led to substantial clean up efforts. Clients have included Barry Farms Residents Council, Kingman Park Civic Association, Anacostia Watershed Society and Friends of the Earth.

In the wake of litigation filed by Earthjustice, the federal and D.C. governments abandoned plans to build a new freeway across the Anacostia River. The proposed freeway would have destroyed several acres of parkland along the river and would have subjected the Anacostia area to increased traffic, air pollution, runoff and noise. More than one hundred million dollars slated to be spent on the project have since been redirected for use on other D.C. transportation projects.

A plan to convert a natural island in the Anacostia to an intensive, for-profit theme park was abandoned by the District of Columbia, after many years of opposition from Earthjustice and others. A highlight of Earthjustice's participation was an important court victory that found that the National Park Service had not properly analyzed the environmental impacts of the theme park proposal.

And 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 is watching closely to see whether all of these agencies comply and adopt limits that will prevent more pollution in the river. We have also asked the courts to require stronger controls on polluted urban runoff from the 500 square-mile storm sewer system in Montgomery County, Maryland.

The District has also stepped up efforts to clean up the river. Among actions taken was legislation adopted nearly two years ago instituting a 5-cent fee on all plastic and paper bags in the district, which has already resulted in a lot less trash entering the river. This has led to much less trash in the river than there was 10 years ago.

More needs to be done.