The Anacostia River was a 9-mile-long trash sluice near the U.S. Capital, but volunteers have transformed the once-bird-free stream into a “raptor hotel.”
By Rex Graham
National Public Radio reporter Hannah Bloch reported on May 20, 2017, that what was good for fish, raptors and water quality was a godsend to people who lived nearby and pitched in. “The river became infamous in the second half of the 20th century as one of the most neglected, trash-choked waterways in the United States – a blighted river amid blighted neighborhoods,” Block said in a radio story posted on NPR’s website.
The river actually flows from Maryland into the Potomac River a few miles south of the White House near the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The source of the river is at Sandy Spring, in Montgomery County, Maryland. That’s about 20 miles north of the nation’s capital and 10 miles northwest of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.
The area was infamous in the late 1960s and 1970s, like the rest of the U.S., for the sharp decline of Ospreys, Bald Eagles and other predatory birds. Widespread use of the insecticide DDT caused their egg shells to thin and easily break during incubation. The pesticide was banned in the U.S. in 1972 after the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
By that time, “The Peregrine Falcon was already extirpated or nearly extirpated in the eastern United States,” Charles J. Henny wrote in The History of Patuxent: America’s Wildlife Research Story.
However, DDT was only part of the river’s perpetual environmental problems. Its watershed in Maryland and Washington, DC, is a highly urban and suburban 440 square km (170 square mi).
DDT residues have declined in the Anacostia’s wildlife, but the river has another environmental problem – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
Streets and parking lots are continually dusted with these cancer-causing chemical byproducts of combustion. If cities and suburbs were cigarettes, PAHs would be their smoky dust. The higher the traffic volume, the more chemical dust gets into the arteries of streams and rivers.
After a rain, the level of PAHs goes up 100-fold in the Anacostia River, researchers with George Mason University said in the journal Environmental Pollution. Who cares? Much of the river passes through low-income neighborhoods, and nobody seemed to care about the river until a New York Times reporter wrote about its poor condition many years ago.
Actually similar problems with PAH pollution exist from Taiwan to Texas. PAHs are not visually obnoxious like tires or plastic bags. They are produced in various molecular sizes, and are as invisible as radioactivity.
The City of Austin was the first to discover that coal tar-based asphalt sealants were major contributors of PAHs in local streams. “Fish kills have been reported when rains occur shortly after asphalt has been installed in parking areas near ponds or stream,” said a 2008 report by the National (U.S.) Research Council.
Asphalt sealants that are not created from coal tar are much less toxic — and cost the same. However, any road or parking lot with high vehicle traffic — paved or unpaved: asphalt, cement, gravel or dirt — build up PAHs during dry weather, which storm water flushes into waterways worldwide.
The storm-water flushed PAHs don’t simply disappear after they enter the Anacostia. They pass unseen and undetected through those neighborhoods and accumulate in the water in the river’s tidal zone (the place where Ospreys and Bald Eagles hunt fish). High concentrations of PAHs persist for 25 to 100 days in the river after a rain storm. With time, PAHs simply become part of the Potomac’s tidal sediment.
The once-neglected Anacostia also was a dumping ground for tires and all kinds of refuse. One of the most ubiquitous forms of trash was single-use plastic bags. They washed into the river like the leaves of trees. However, legislation passed in 2009 raised money from a plastic bag levy to help clean up the river. In this way, the significance of the Anacostia is global.
Plastic-bag pollution is a growing problem worldwide because the ubiquitous bags break down into microbeads. Small fish mistake microbeads for plankton, eat them and suffer ill effects.
“About 5.25 trillion plastic particles (weighing 269,000 tons) are floating in the sea,” researchers at Dalhousie University in Canada said in 2017 in Marine Pollution Bulletin. Many of those microbeads end up in our stomachs when we eat ocean fish.
“The potential for humans, as top predators, to consume microplastics as contaminants in seafood is very real, and its implications for health need to be considered,” Greenpeace researchers said in the April 2017 issue of the journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management. The Greenpeace commentary was 1 of 15 in the April issue devoted to the risks of microplastics in the environment. (However, a citizen-science study of Atlantic Cod caught by fishers in Newfoundland said that only 2.4% of the cod had ingested “plastic.”)
While local bans on plastic-bags means that some waterways and beaches have less pollution in the form of microplastics, local governments in the U.S. have not taken the more difficult (expensive) step of treating stormwater to remove PAHs and other pollutants before they enter waterways.
The Earth Conservation Corps organized the massive clean-up of the Anacostia, which took years to accomplish. Filmmaker Bob Nixon started the Corps 25 years ago with the clean-up in mind.
NPR reported that Nixon had made a pact with primatologist Dian Fossey to start a conservation project. A New York Times story about the Anacostia gave him the idea for the Corps and the clean-up. The NPR story is a compelling example of how saving Ospreys gave meaning to the lives of volunteers from crime-ridden neighborhoods. Some artificial Osprey nests were made by welding rifles and other firearms into circular platforms atop metal poles.
Much of the Osprey-conservation activities are organized at the Matthew Henson Earth Conservation Center, which was named for the first African-American explorer to reach the North Pole. Henson made his discovery with Robert Peary.
Read more at NPR.