An Update on the Anacostia River Sediment Project: the Plan to Clean Up the River Bottom

I have been following the progress of the Anacostia River Sediment Project for the last few years, and below I have provided a summary of the project and where it’s headed. I created the illustrations below to supplement the official project’s figures.

Warning: acronyms abound! There are a lot of acronyms used to describe this project and I will do my best to define the most common ones and avoid too much jargon in this post. If you have questions about what any of this means, please contact me and I will do my best to edit this post so that it makes sense to readers who don’t already know about it. 

- Erin Garnaas-Holmes, Ambassador, Anacostia Watershed Urban Waters Partnership


What is the Anacostia River Sediment Project? 

The Anacostia River Sediment Project (ARSP) is the plan to clean up the bottom of the Anacostia River. The sediment (soil at the bottom of the river) has potentially harmful pollutants in it from past abuse, and the ARSP will lay out a plan to make the river bottom safe for humans and other creatures. 

This is a “typical” diagram of the sediment at the bottom of the river. It is an illustration, not “to scale”. Anacostia Park runs along much of the river in the District but not all of it, and the seawall exists along much of the river but not all of it. The river and sediment depth varies.

This is a “typical” diagram of the sediment at the bottom of the river. It is an illustration, not “to scale”. Anacostia Park runs along much of the river in the District but not all of it, and the seawall exists along much of the river but not all of it. The river and sediment depth varies.

The project is focused on the stretch of the river from the where the Anacostia River and the Potomac River meet in the District, up to the area around Bladensburg Waterfront Park in Maryland. 

Project area boundary for the Anacostia River Sediment Project.

Project area boundary for the Anacostia River Sediment Project.

The District Department of Energy and the Environment (DOEE) aims to have an interim plan for the cleanup by the end of 2019. Cleanup efforts could theoretically launch within a year after the interim “Record of Decision” (ROD) is released. 

Where did the pollution come from? 

The pollution in the Anacostia River sediment potentially came from multiple sources, including past industrial land uses, sewer outfalls, contaminated groundwater, runoff from rainstorms and landfills placed near the river. 

The pollution in the Anacostia River sediment potentially came from multiple sources, including past industrial land uses, sewer outfalls, contaminated groundwater, runoff from rainstorms and landfills placed in the riverbed.

The pollution in the Anacostia River sediment potentially came from multiple sources, including past industrial land uses, sewer outfalls, contaminated groundwater, runoff from rainstorms and landfills placed in the riverbed.

The primary contaminants of concern for the cleanup project include: 

  • “polychlorinated biphenyls”  (PCBs), which are chemicals that were used in electrical equipment through the 1970s and which are still found in our urban environment; 

  • “Dioxins,” which are highly toxic compounds that are often produced by burning of waste; and

  • pesticides, which are chemicals used to repel pests in agriculture and residential use. 

All of these materials pose a risk to humans and to aquatic organisms. 




People who eat fish caught in the river are at risk from the contamination, as are people who wade in the sediment. Fish and benthic invertebrates (small animals like snails who live at the bottom of the river) are also at risk.

People who eat fish caught in the river are at risk from the contamination, as are people who wade in the sediment. Fish and benthic invertebrates (small animals like snails who live at the bottom of the river) are also at risk.

How will the sediment be cleaned up? 

The ARSP will create a plan to clean up the sediment. The goal of the plan will be to reduce the amount of pollution in the river to safe levels. 

These levels are called “preliminary remediation goals,” or PRGs. Some areas of the river are “hotspots” for pollution and will require more restoration activity than other areas. 

This diagram highlights some of the areas that showed highest concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the Remedial Investigation studies completed in 2019. This diagram is illustrative only: refer to the official documents for precise data.

This diagram highlights some of the areas that showed highest concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the Remedial Investigation studies completed in 2019. This diagram is illustrative only: refer to the official documents for precise data.

Safe levels will be achieved over time through a variety of different cleanup methods. These methods include capping, dredging, beneficial reuse and managed natural recovery.

DOEE will consider a combination of several strategies to clean up the sediment.

DOEE will consider a combination of several strategies to clean up the sediment.

Capping would put a clay, soil, concrete or other impermeable cover over the contamination, sealing it away from humans and wildlife. 

Dredging would remove the contaminated sediment. Dredged material would be taken to a landfill for secure disposal, or reused beneficially. “Beneficial reuse” entails using the dredged sediment to create new structures like restored wetlands. Reused sediment would be “capped” to ensure it no longer poses a risk to humans or ecology. 

Monitored natural recovery (or monitored natural attenuation) means letting the ecosystem recover by itself over time. 

Early cleanup actions will most likely focus on addressing the “hotspot” areas, while later actions will address other areas, evaluate recontamination from upstream sources, and test out different strategies for cleaning up secondary areas. DOEE and the National Park Service will monitor and manage the cleanup areas in years to come to ensure that restoration efforts are working. 

What about the water? 

The ARSP is focused on cleaning up pollution in the sediment of the river, but not cleaning up the water itself. Other efforts are leading to improved water quality in the Anacostia River, however. 

DC Water’s Clean Rivers Project has created a massive tunnel that captures most of the sewage that would have flowed into the Anacostia River during rain storms and sends it to a treatment facility. When completed in 2023, the system will redirect nearly all of the sewage that used to overflow into the river and pose a risk to people and animals.  

The District and Maryland’s trash reduction efforts have also drastically reduced the volume of trash in the river. “Trash traps” capture floating debris in streams before it gets to the river, and policies like DC’s 5 cent bag fee, as well as bans on foam containers and plastic straws, have reduced the amount of plastic bags polluting our local environment. 

If you want to learn more about current water quality in the Anacostia River, you can track the progress of water quality on the SwimGuide website and app and on Facebook, where the Anacostia Riverkeeper posts regular results from its citizen science monitoring program

Who is leading the Sediment Project? 

DOEE and the National Park Service are completing plans for the Anacostia River Sediment Project. Technically, the water in the Anacostia River is part of the District of Columbia but the bottom of the river belongs to the National Park Service (NPS), part of the Federal government.

The bottom of the river and much of the parkland along the river are managed by the National Park Service, but the water of the river belongs to the District. There are areas along the river owned by the District, Maryland government agencies and private owners as well.

The bottom of the river and much of the parkland along the river are managed by the National Park Service, but the water of the river belongs to the District. There are areas along the river owned by the District, Maryland government agencies and private owners as well.

The project is similar to the “Superfund” process led by the Environmental Protection Agency, except that in this case the project is being completed voluntarily by the District government, federal government and other “potentially responsible parties” (PRPs). The PRPs include Pepco, which once operated the coal-fired power plant near the banks of the river north of Benning Road NE, and Washington Gas, which once stored petroleum products on the banks of the river near the 11th Street SE Bridge. 

Federal agencies involved include the National Park Service, Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior and the Department of Defense. Although Maryland is not an official partner of the ARSP, District and Federal agencies are also working with Maryland government to ensure that the state is addressing potential pollution sources upstream in the watershed. 

All of these parties are all working together through Mayor Muriel Bowser’s “Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River,” an official District body that has met regularly over the past several years to align efforts between these many partners. 

What’s the timeline for the cleanup?

The final product of the ARSP is called a “record of decision,” or “ROD.” The Leadership Council has decided to pursue a cleanup strategy called “adaptive management” for the ARSP. This means that the first cleanup plan released in 2019 will be an “interim ROD,” focused on early action steps that can be taken to reduce health risks and launch cleanup efforts. Final remediation goals and long-term management strategies will be pursued after early actions and initial tests are completed

If the decisions are released by the end of 2019, then the agencies involved will begin searching for contractors to perform the cleanup work. This may take several months or more, but initial cleanup efforts in the river bed could begin as soon as late 2020 or early 2021.

DOEE plans to release an Interim Record of Decision by December 31, 2019.

DOEE plans to release an Interim Record of Decision by December 31, 2019.

How will this affect DC residents? 

The completion of the Anacostia River Sediment Project will be a huge step in the restoration of the Anacostia River. The construction efforts to repair the river’s health will make the river even safer for people to fish, wade, boat and swim in the water. Combined with efforts to restore water quality and revitalize park areas, the ARSP will help the District achieve its goal to become swimmable, fishable and boatable by 2032. 

How is this project funded? 

The District government funds ARSP. Ultimately, cleanup and restoration costs will be funded by a combination of government funds and payments from the potentially responsible parties. This will become a complex legal process and we are currently working to understand which parties are responsible what contamination.

Where can I find more information?

All of the materials, documents and studies related to this project are part of the public record, which you can view on the DOEE website. If you have questions about the ARSP or any of these materials, please contact Gretchen Mikeska, Anacostia Coordinator with DOEE, at gretchen.mikeska@dc.gov.

Erin Garnaas-Holmescleanup