DC prepares to tackle hotspots, but in Gunpowder River little is to be done

by Timothy B. Wheeler, BayJournal.com

It’s been a slog, but efforts are making headway to rid the Anacostia River of long-banned toxic chemicals that make it unsafe to eat many locally caught fish.

After years of sampling and studies, District of Columbia officials have proposed tackling 11 hot spots of contamination in the lower Anacostia, which flows through DC before joining the Potomac River. The sediments in those places are laden with PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, a pernicious family of synthetic chemicals still making their way into fish more than four decades after being outlawed because of their risks to human health and wildlife.

“We are making real progress,” Tommy Wells, director of the district’s Department of Energy and the Environment, said at a cleanup planning meeting in June. The department’s “early action” plan, unveiled late last year, calls for a combination of dredging, capping, and treatment of the PCB-tainted sediments. The projected $30 million costs is nevertheless only a down payment on dealing with the full mixture of toxic wastes, pesticides, and other harmful substances fouling the river.

But officials hope that by addressing these hot spots, they can at least reduce the health risks from eating locally caught fish. After reviewing hundreds of comments on the plan, they intend to announce Sept. 30 how they’ll proceed.

“Small fish tell a big story,” said Fred Pinkney. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist spent two years collecting mummichogs and other minnow-like fish (shown here) from the Anacostia River. Because they don’t move around much, analysis of PCBs in their bodies can help guide efforts to clean up hot spots in the river’s sediment and reveal locations of fresh contamination. Dave Harp

“I have to temper my desire to have it all done yesterday,” said Jim Foster, president, and CEO of the Anacostia Watershed Society. “But it seems as if we are finally on a trajectory to get it done.”

Elsewhere, there’s far less getting done about the PCB contamination that’s widespread throughout the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. In the Gunpowder and Bird rivers north of Baltimore, Maryland regulators have concluded there’s little they can do to reduce the PCBs that are responsible for fish consumption advisories there on channel catfish, carp, and white and yellow perch, among other species.

Anglers hoping to eat uncontaminated catch from those two linked rivers may have to wait for PCB levels to decline on their own, state officials said. But it could be a long wait for the persistent chemicals to break down naturally or become buried under cleaner sediment. In the Gunpowder, that could take 49 years, officials project; in the Bird, 93 years.

Theaux Le Gardeur, the Gunpowder Riverkeeper, finds that intolerable. “In many cases, that’s three generations of Marylanders subject to fish consumption advisories due to PCBs,” he said. Le Gardeur runs a fly-fishing shop and fishing guide service that focuses on the Gunpowder. 

On July 29, the riverkeeper filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency challenging the federal agency’s approval of what Le Gardeur contends is an inadequate state study of what can be done about PCBs contaminating the rivers.

In the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, he complains that the Maryland Department of the Environment didn’t sample enough and didn’t propose to do anything about the main source of PCBs contaminating fish – the bottom sediments. EPA neglected its duty under the Clean Water Act by signing off on the state’s plan, the suit contends.

Gunpowder Riverkeeper Theaux Le Gardeur collects a water sample on Town Creek near its confluence with the Gunpowder River. Dave Harp

Still a widespread problem

The Anacostia and the pair of Baltimore County rivers illustrate the challenges Bay watershed communities face in dealing with problems posed by PCBs and other toxic contaminants.

While Bay watershed states, localities and federal agencies have focused on reducing water pollution from nutrients and sediment, they’ve done much less to deal with PCBs, mercury, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and toxic metals in sediment, water, and fish.

According to the state-federal Chesapeake Bay Program, 82% of the Bay and tidal waters of its tributaries are considered either fully or partially impaired by toxic contaminants.

In 2014, all six watershed states, the district, and the EPA pledged to make the Bay and its rivers “free of effects of toxic contaminants on living resources and human health.” They agreed specifically to go after PCBs.

Once widely used as coolants or insulators in electrical equipment and other products, PCBs were banned by the EPA in 1979 amid research linking exposure to cancer and other health effects. They break down very slowly, however, so have continued to contaminate many waterways, where they tend to collect in bottom sediments.

PCB concentrations in water and sediment have declined some since being banned. But PCBs bioaccumulate, meaning that seemingly minuscule doses build up in the fatty tissue of fish when they ingest the chemicals. The contamination is passed up the food chain as predators, including humans, consume tainted fish.

PCBs are the basis for many of the fish consumption advisories in effect throughout the Bay and its tributaries. Anglers are urged to limit or even avoid eating much locally caught fish including, in some places, the highly prized striped bass.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service biologist Fred Pinkney prepares to place a fish trap in the Anacostia River as technician Tanner Stoker holds the boat steady. While contaminant levels declined over time in some fish, the District of Columbia advises against eating locally caught carp, eel and striped bass because of unsafe levels of PCBs and other toxic chemicals. Dave Harp

Over the last two decades, the Bay watershed jurisdictions, under EPA supervision, have developed pollution-reduction strategies, known as “total maximum daily loads,” for eliminating PCB contamination in dozens of tidal waterways. 

The District worked with Maryland, Virginia, and the EPA to develop a PCB-reduction strategy for its stretch of the Anacostia and Potomac in 2007. The plan unveiled by the district last December came after years of studies.

District officials say the measures they’re considering for dealing with hot spots in the lower Anacostia should reduce health risks from eating fish caught there by 90%. Some dredging is proposed, but in other areas, the district is weighing sequestering contaminated silt under a layer of clean sediment or treating it on the river bottom.

Upal Ghosh and Kevin Sowers, a pair of researchers at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, have shown that depositing activated carbon pellets on contaminated sediment can “lock-up” the PCBs and dramatically reduce what’s getting into the water. Coating the pellets with certain naturally occurring bacteria can even speed up the normally slow breakdown of the chemicals “from decades to months,” according to Sowers.

Fresh sources of PCBs

But cleaning up legacy contamination in sediment won’t be enough as long as more PCBs are getting into the river, as studies have shown, Ghosh said.

A 2019 report by the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that lower Beaverdam Creek is the dominant source of fresh PCBs to the lower Anacostia. A study that Ghosh and other researchers presented to the district earlier this year found dissolved PCB levels in the creek to be “screaming high,” as he put it — up to 20 times the levels measured in the river.

In March, Maryland regulators reported finding elevated PCBs in both sediment and water in two stretches of the creek in Prince George’s County. One is by the Landover Metrorail Station, they said.

Sherry Lin, a spokesperson for the transit agency, said Metro has cooperated with MDE investigators. Metro conducts annual inspections of all rail station outfalls and has programs in place to detect and prevent stormwater contamination, she said.

The other PCB-laden stretch of the creek is near its confluence with the Anacostia, the MDE reported. It flows there through a metal recycling facility owned by Joseph Smith & Sons. The MDE said PCB levels in creek sediment “spike rapidly” at this location, “indicating that there may be legacy contamination” on land there.

State inspectors last year sampled a retention pond at the 16-acre scrapyard and found PCBs in the water, according to information supplied by the MDE.

Beaverdam Creek in Maryland flows through a concrete channel near where it empties into the Anacostia River. Sampling has detected high levels of PCBs in water and sediment in the lower portion of the creek near here, indicating the long-banned chemicals could be getting into the creek from groundwater seeps or storm drains. Dave Harp

Dale Mullen, a lawyer representing the company, said it is voluntarily cooperating with the state and has taken steps to address the situation, including building a new concrete wall to prevent runoff or seepage to the creek. The company is also installing a new stormwater treatment system capable of removing PCBs and other contaminants. In the meantime, he noted, all stormwater outfalls from the site have been closed for now.

The next steps in the investigation, MDE officials said, include checking storm drains for PCB-tainted sediment that may be flushed out when it rains as well as other possible sources of runoff and seepage from tainted soil.

Elsewhere, there’s not been as much activity. Maryland has produced PCB-reduction strategies for 31 of its rivers. But nearly half of those, including the one for the Gunpowder and Bird rivers, don’t identify any local sources of contamination to be remediated.

State officials say that’s because water sampling and computer modeling indicates the vast majority of PCBs in those rivers come from other water bodies — the Susquehanna River, in the case of the Gunpowder and Bird. PCBs from there are flowing into the Bay, they say, where currents and tides carry them into the tributaries.

“To see meaningful progress, you would need to change what’s flowing in from the Chesapeake,” said Lee Currey, director of MDE’s water and science administration. The agency is working on a strategy for reducing PCBs in the lower Susquehanna, including in the sediments built up behind the Conowingo Dam.

Problems on the Gunpowder

But Le Gardeur, the Gunpowder Riverkeeper, contends that the state’s PCB reduction strategy for the Gunpowder and Bird rivers doesn’t address the major source: chemicals already in the sediments, which can get back into the water to be ingested by fish.

Le Gardeur argues that the state also overlooked potential local sources of PCBs, such as Aberdeen Proving Ground, where the Army tests munitions and at one time tested chemical warfare agents. The entire base is a federal Superfund site undergoing multiple cleanups as a legacy of past releases and the burial of hazardous and explosive materials.

In developing its strategy, the MDE said a review of its records didn’t find any legacy PCB contamination in the areas of the proving ground that drain into the Gunpowder.

But a 2016 consultant’s report measured high levels of PCBs, along with other contaminants, in upper Canal Creek, which drains into the Gunpowder from the proving ground’s Edgewood area. The Army is studying the feasibility of options for remediating the PCBs in Canal Creek, according to Bethani Crouch, a base spokesperson.

MDE spokesman Jay Apperson acknowledged the PCB contamination in Canal Creek and said it “will be considered” in any future revision to the rivers’ cleanup strategy.

Le Gardeur questioned why the MDE didn’t consider dredging or treating contaminated sediments in the rivers, as was done in waters just south of the Gunpowder. From 2016 through 2018, Lockheed Martin Corp., which for decades has produced aircraft and aviation electronics on Middle River, removed PCB-laden sediment from two of its tributaries, Darkhead Cove and Cowpen Creek. The company also treated an undredged portion of the bottom with activated carbon to keep the chemicals there from getting back into the water.

The MDE has said it generally doesn’t favor dredging because it could stir up contaminated sediments and harm aquatic life. In Middle River, Currey said the agency approved dredging and treatment of the bottom because it was a relatively small area with documented high levels of the chemicals.

Brady Locher, deputy director of Baltimore County’s Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability, said the county “has worked diligently” to address PCB contamination, which impairs Back River and Baltimore Harbor in addition to the Gunpowder and Bird. 

The county partnered with state regulators and the UMBC researchers to assess PCB levels in fish tissue, aquatic insects, sediment and water in Back River. County officials are now looking to contract with an external laboratory capable of analyzing contaminant concentrations.

“Because PCB remediation is so expensive, it is crucial that we base our actions on reliable and comprehensive monitoring results,” Locher said.

The county is preparing to dredge more than 50 acres of the Bird River — but to improve boater access, not remove PCBs. The MDE is reviewing the county’s plan. Apperson said a study of dredging in Baltimore Harbor, where contamination is worse, indicated the activity would have only “limited impact” on fish tissue levels.

Meanwhile, the county should soon have more resources for combating PCBs. Officials expect to get more than $7.5 million from a federal class-action lawsuit against Monsanto Corp., which at one time made PCBs. The company agreed to pay a total of $550 million to settle water contamination claims by nearly 2,000 towns, cities, counties, and port districts. The District of Columbia is slated to get $52 million from that settlement to put toward cleaning up the Anacostia and Potomac rivers.  

Le Gardeur said he didn’t want to file a lawsuit, but felt he had little choice given the lack of action proposed for the Gunpowder and Bird rivers. He owns a fly-fishing shop and runs a fishing guide service that caters to anglers fishing the Gunpowder, he noted in the legal complaint, so the contamination directly affects his livelihood. Similar lawsuits alleging inadequate cleanup plans have on occasion led to revisions that strengthened them.

A spokesperson for EPA’s mid-Atlantic regional office said the agency and the Justice Department are currently reviewing the riverkeeper’s lawsuit.

The tidal Gunpowder and Bird are used by boaters and swimmers, the riverkeeper noted. They’re also popular for fishing and crabbing.

Bill Temmink, a local angler, said he doesn’t eat what he catches in the Gunpowder, but he knows of “a bunch of people who are out here three and four times a week and keep the fish.”

Of the projected date when the MDE said the river’s fish should be free of PCB contamination, Temmink said, “50 years is a long time.”

This article originally appeared on the BayJournal.com on August 5, 2020 and is republished with permission from Bay Journal Media