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Anacostia River Environmentally Degraded by Pollution and Urban Waste, Washington, D.C., USA

Anacostia Watershed, home to low-income communities of color, faces pollution from sewage, storm water, and more. The people living by the Anacostia are disproportionately affected by its contamination.


In 1608, Captain John Smith sailed up the Anacostia River, and thus began the industrialization of the river and surrounding areas that have polluted it ever since. In the 18th century, a port was established on the river at its mouth at Bladensburg, Maryland, and the area only continued to be developed. The river was soon polluted by shipbuilding at the Washington Navy Yard and an upriver coal gasification plant [10]. The Washington Navy Yard was classified by the EPA as a Superfund site in 1998 [9]. By 2000, approximately 70% of the watershed had been developed [19]. Since the beginning of the industrialization of the Anacostia, it has faced numerous issues, namely stormwater runoff and urban waste pollution. About 25% of the watershed is covered by impervious surfaces, causing storm water to flow into the river rather than sink into the ground [17]. Runoff brings sediment, toxins, heavy metals, agricultural waste, trash, fecal bacteria, oil, antifreeze, and other pollutants into the river, while also accelerating currents, eroding the banks and increasing sedimentation [19]. The National Resources Defense Council estimates that 75-90% of pollution in the Anacostia is caused by stormwater runoff [7]. Another source of pollution is D.C.’s outdated sewage system, which allows about half a billion gallons of raw sewage to flow into the Anacostia each year. As a result, the river is laden with fecal bacteria, at levels which measure many times more toxic than permitted by public health standards [15]. Before the Clean Water Act passed in 1972, the Anacostia served as a dumping ground for toxic waste. Long-lasting toxins remain in the sediment today, and there are six known “legacy toxic sites” in the Anacostia [12]. Toxins still flow into the river from old sites of development as well [8]. These toxins include pharmaceuticals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metals. These contaminants are destructive to fish and to all organisms that eat them, disrupting and affecting the food chain and ecosystem of the river [19]. The Anacostia is also littered with trash. It is the second U.S. river declared to be “impaired by trash” [12]. Another issue faced by the river is wetland destruction, as 96% of tidal wetlands in the watershed have been destroyed. Wetlands are essential for ecosystem health, and their absence degrades the water quality [9]. 

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Anacostia River Environmentally Degraded by Pollution and Urban Waste, Washington, D.C., USA
Country:United States of America
State or province:Washington District of Columbia
Location of conflict:Washington District of Columbia
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Waste Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Landfills, toxic waste treatment, uncontrolled dump sites
Other industries
Water treatment and access to sanitation (access to sewage)
Specific commodities:Domestic municipal waste
Chemical products
Industrial waste
Project Details and Actors
Project details

The Anacostia River has been subject to industrialization for centuries, amplified by the establishment of a port in the 18th century. In 1998, the Washington Navy Yard, which had been polluting the river, was classified as a Superfund site by the EPA and by 2000, 70% of the watershed had been developed [10, 9]. As a result, the River was subject to pollution, mainly due to urban waste and stormwater runoff. Toxins found in the river include pharmaceuticals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metals [8]. The effects of this pollution on the nearby population, made up of primarily low income and predominantly people of color communities, are detrimental.

Project area:2,905
Level of Investment for the conflictive project10,028,000.00
Type of populationUrban
Affected Population:800,000
Start of the conflict:1980
Company names or state enterprises:D.C. Water and Sewage Authority (D.C. Water)
Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Sewage Treatment Plant
Relevant government actors:Environmental Protection Agency
D.C. Department of Energy and Environment
Urban Waters Federal Partnership
Anacostia Watershed Restoration Partnership
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Anacostia Waterfront Trust (
National Resources Defense Counsil (
Earthjustice (
Anacostia Watershed Society (
Anacostia Riverkeeper (
Earth Conservation Corps (
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityLOW (some local organising)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:International ejos
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Local scientists/professionals
Forms of mobilization:Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil contamination, Soil erosion, Waste overflow, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Groundwater pollution or depletion
Other Environmental impactsfoul smell because of pollution;
Health ImpactsPotential: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Other environmental related diseases, Malnutrition
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of landscape/sense of place, Violations of human rights
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Application of existing regulations
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Proposal and development of alternatives:Efforts have been made to clean up the Anacostia since the late 1980s, with strong initiatives taken by the following four project actors.

1.The Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), a local NGO, is one actor that has been involved in cleaning up the river. 40% of their funding comes from the government, and 43% comes from various foundations, with individuals and corporations making up the rest of the funding [10]. Their projects include storm water management, habitat restoration, pollution reduction, and various education initiatives. They release a financial report each year, and in 2018, they received $2.66 million in grants and contributions. They spent $2.61 million, 76% of which went to programs, 18% went to administration, and 6% went to fundraising [6].

2.The Anacostia Waterfront Initiative (AWI), a government funded group, is another project actor. Since their founding in 1998, they have spent about $10 billion on waterfront restoration projects [16]. AWI has made several developments on the waterfront, including The Wharf, Capital Riverfront, Yards Park, and the Nationals Stadium [4].

3. D.C. Water's involvement in the Anacostia begun in 2011 with its Clean Rivers Project. They constructed the Blue Plains and Anacostia River Tunnels, which opened in March 2018 [19]. This will be followed by construction of the Northeast Boundary Tunnel which is slated to open in 2023 [1]. The Blue Plains and Anacostia River Tunnels were constructed with the Nannie boring machine. This costed about $25 million. The tunnels go from the Robert F. Kennedy stadium in Northeast D.C. to Poplar Point in Southeast D.C. The tunnel measures 23 ft in diameter and is about 12,500 ft. long. It is about 80-120 ft deep [3].

4. Anacostia Riverkeeper develops initiatives to connect the community to the river. They host Clean Waterways trash cleanup events, Friday Night Fishing, which is free, Thursday Night Kayaking, and free boat tours with their Anacostia River Explorers project. In 2018, they began a citizen science initiative. With help from citizen volunteers, they are monitoring bacteria in the river. This project is funded by the District Department of Energy and the Environment [2].
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Not Sure
Briefly explain:While steps have been taken to clean the Anacostia, and its overall health is improving, there has been little recognition that this is truly an environmental justice issue. The communities surrounding the Anacostia still lack access to the river, and there has not been much work to mitigate green gentrification.
Sources & Materials

[1] ABC7. “DC Water tunnel saves Anacostia River from 4.5 billion gallons of sewage overflow in 2018.” ABC7 WJLA, 7 Jan. 2019.
[click to view]

[2] “About Anacostia Riverkeeper.” Anacostia Riverkeeper.
[click to view]

[3] “Anacostia River Tunnel Project.” DC Water.
[click to view]

[4] Avni, Nufar and Fischler, Raphaël. “Social and Environmental Justice in Waterfront Redevelopment: The Anacostia River, Washington, D.C.” Urban Affairs Review, 22 Mar. 2019. Sage Journals.
[click to view]

[5] Editorial Board. “A Tale of Two Rivers: Environmental Injustice in D.C.” The Georgetown Voice, 22 Apr. 2016.
[click to view]

[6] “Financial Information.” Anacostia Watershed Society.
[click to view]

[7] Fragoso, Alejandro Davila. “Toxic Pollution is Still Seeping Into the Anacostia River.” Think Progress, 29 Mar. 2016.
[click to view]

[8] Heimbuch, Jaymi. “The once hopelessly polluted Anacostia river is making a comeback.” Mother Nature Network, Narrative Content Group, 3 Jan. 2017.
[click to view]

[9] Momin, Kashaf. “Confronting Environmental Gentrification: The Case of the Anacostia.” Environmental Law Institute, 3 Jun. 2019.
[click to view]

[10] “Our Watershed.” Anacostia Watershed Society.
[click to view]

[11] Powell, Matthew. “Comment: The Anacostia River: Urbanization, Pollution, EPA Failures, and the Collapse of the Public Trust Doctrine.” University of Baltimore Law Forum, vol. 41, no. 1, 2010.
[click to view]

[12] “Restore the Anacostia River!” Clean Water Action.
[click to view]

[13] Sadek, Aya. “In Anacostia, a long-suffering river is making a comeback.” The Wash, American University School of Communication, 23 Oct. 2018.
[click to view]

[14] Schyler, Krista. “River of Resilience.” ESRI, 2018.
[click to view]

[15] “The Anacostia River.” Earthjustice.
[click to view]

[16] Turrentine, Jeff. “Healing the Anacostia’s Troubled Waters.” NRDC, 11 Mar. 2016.
[click to view]

[17] “Urban Waters and the Anacostia Watershed (Washington, DC/Maryland).” United States Environmental Protection Agency.
[click to view]

[18] Williams, Brett. “A River Runs Through Us.” American Anthropologist, vol. 103, no. 2, Jun. 2001, pp. 409-431. Jstor.
[click to view]

[19] “2018 State of the Anacostia River Full Report.” Anacostia Watershed Society, 2018.
[click to view]

[20] Bonk, Valerie. “DC announces major step in plan to clean up Anacostia River, surrounding areas.” WTOP News, 2020.
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Ella Fishman, Skidmore College, [email protected]; Amity Wilson, Skidmore College; A.J. Schneller, Skidmore College
Last update22/07/2021
Conflict ID:5379
Legal notice / Aviso legal
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