Cleaning Crews Dig Into D.C. Waterways’ Trash

Posted March 31, 2004 at 6:31pm

Environmentalist Chad Pregracke is a man who can count his life’s work in garbage: 10,154 car tires, 737 refrigerators, one 1970 Ford Econoline.

Those items are just part of some 900 tons of trash that Pregracke and his organization, Living Lands and Water, have pulled from America’s rivers and waterways in the past six years.

Beginning today and continuing for the next three and a half weeks, this down-home Midwesterner who lives on a trash barge on the Mississippi River 10 months of the year, will take on what he admits are two of the dirtiest rivers he’s ever encountered: the Potomac and the Anacostia.

Led by Pregracke and his 10-person crew, the Capital River Relief Project plans to bring 1,000 local volunteers to Washington’s two rivers in an effort to clean up more than 30 miles of riverbank from Mount Vernon in Virginia to the Tidal Basin, RFK Stadium and Buzzards Point in the District. The effort, which is being sponsored by local environmental groups, will conclude with an Earth Day celebration April 24, when Pregracke plans to move his trash-loaded barge across the Potomac from the Lincoln Memorial — juxtaposing the garbage pulled from the rivers against a backdrop of D.C.’s famous monuments before it is all unloaded, sorted and recycled.

“These are national treasures right here, just as much as these monuments,” Pregracke says, pointing to the water as he stood amid a half-dozen old tires in one of his six clean-up boats while on a trash survey along the Anacostia this week.

More Than Just Garbage

His hands are dirty and his eyes gaze along shorelines cluttered with endless lines of soda bottles, chairs and other discarded household items, but Pregracke, ever the optimist, is excited to begin the work.

“What’s really important is getting people out on the river,” he says. “Everyone who comes out gets a ride in a boat. It makes them feel like now they have a stake in the river.”

“The garbage is really the least of the rivers’ problems,” Pregracke says, explaining that bacteria buildup and sewage overflows are really the main causes of pollutants. He admits that completely cleaning up Washington’s two rivers is going to take decades, not weeks, but he hopes projects like the Capitol River Relief will make Washingtonians and lawmakers on Capitol Hill take a second look at their long-neglected waterways.

Even as he speaks, his boat suddenly shudders as its propellers begin turning up silt that has spilled out of one of the Anacostia’s 19 combined sewer runoffs. Part of Washington’s ancient sewer system, these drains are some of the main causes of human waste pollutants during heavy rainstorms in Washington. “That’s a perfect example right there,” he says pointing at the brown muck being turned up.

Pregracke, who has received numerous environmental stewardship awards for his work over the years, seems more at home on the water than in the spotlight. He continually runs down lists of sponsors and other people who make his projects possible: Koch Industries and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to name a few. And he admits that in Washington, he feels a bit like a fish out of water, unlike the small towns along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers where he usually works.

But that’s where Doug Siglin comes in.

Spreading the Word

Siglin, a 12-year environmental lobbying veteran and former Capitol Hill staffer, is the director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Anacostia River initiative and chairman of the Capital River Relief steering committee.

Standing next to Pregracke, Siglin begins to tick off some of the more troubling statistics about the Anacostia as the boat moves slowly past the National Park Service building that sits along a stretch of the river no cleaner than the rest.

The Anacostia is a dumping ground for some 20,000 tons of trash and debris each year — 16.5 tons of that is floating trash like the milk jugs and bottles that bob past the boat, Siglin says. The Anacostia’s fish have some of the highest rates of cancer of any found in American rivers and the river is often in the running as one of America’s most endangered. A Washington Post article published in February noted one study that found 50 to 68 percent of mature brown bullhead catfish collected in 2001 from the river had liver tumors, most of which were cancerous

“It keeps me motivated,” Siglin said firmly. “From my point of view this project will draw huge attention to the trash, which is symbolic of a lot of the other problems that you don’t see … these events happen very infrequently. If people came down here and saw the trash and got enraged they’d do more of this.”

Siglin adds that April 7 is a Congressional staff day for Capitol River Relief and his group is hoping to shuttle staffers to the rivers.

As the boat passes one of the largest combined sewers that flows into the Anacostia, Siglin explains that the river’s pollution problems are more than just a city problem, it’s a federal and state problem as well.

“Whenever a Congressman or staff person uses their toilet, whatever’s in that toilet goes right into the Anacostia,” he says. “And 83 percent of the stream network for the Anacostia is located in Maryland.”

Fixing Washington’s sewer system, which Siglin says needs to be the first priority, would cost somewhere between $600 million and $800 million and could be completed in 15 years, he says. This year’s request for funding for the project is still pending in both chambers in the Appropriations subcommittees on the District of Columbia.

As the boat comes into dock Pregracke, still in his life preserver and wading boots, sets off to get his other five boats ready to ferry volunteers in the coming days. Siglin gets back into his car to head to his Capitol Hill office.

While Pregracke’s hands-on approach and Siglin’s legislative approach represent two very different ways of doing environmental work, their goals are still the same. And regardless of their different approaches, both will be working side by side in the coming weeks, getting their feet wet in the shadow of Capitol Hill and cleaning up Washington’s waterways.