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Chuck Patterson turns his gaze to the river as his line grows taut. “Man, you must be good luck!” he chortles as he reels in an 18-inch catfish. It’s the third one he’s caught in six hours of fishing today.
He inspects his catch. “Does that look clean to you?” Patterson asks. “It sure looks clean to me.” He leans in closer to the flailing, moustached fish. “Look, there’s a little yellow here, but what I do is, I soak it in vinegar for a day, and then it goes away. The stuff that tastes weird, it goes away.”
Patterson probably won’t eat it, though. He says tries to limit himself to one catfish per month, and gives the rest to a woman in his apartment building.
“I ate a catfish from out here last week,” Patterson says. “It looked real clean. The river’s not as dirty as it used to be. And the fish I pulled out here last week, it tasted like a farm-grown cat.”
We’re standing just south of the John Philip Sousa Bridge in Anacostia Park, overlooking a stretch of the Anacostia River that does, in fact, appear to be relatively clean. But there’s more to the river than its glistening surface. There’s the trash, like the neutrally buoyant plastic bags that float unseen in the water column. There’s the stormwater runoff, which carries a slew of pollutants into the river. There’s the fecal bacteria from the combined sewer overflow. Most dangerous of all are the toxins, from places like the recently closed Pepco Benning Road power plant, which make the catfish that populate the river unsafe for consumption.
The District’s eastern major waterway doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation. Unlike the Potomac, with its memorials and tony Georgetown waterfront, the Anacostia has long been known as the dividing line between the city’s poor and very poor neighborhoods. And while the river has seen some recent high-end development and is gradually becoming cleaner—the city’s 2010 bag fee has greatly reduced the number of plastic bags clogging the waterway, and DC Water’s $2.6 billion Clean Rivers Project is expected to eliminate most of the sewer overflow—it’s still not where you want to catch your dinner.
The 60-year-old Patterson, who lives off of Texas Avenue SE, believes his one-fish-a-month diet is in accordance with the city’s guidelines. But that’s not what the District Department of the Environment says. Its public health advisory urges people not to eat any catfish, eel, or carp from the Anacostia or Potomac rivers.
Unfortunately, Patterson is far from alone. According to a survey published Thursday by the Maryland-based polling firm OpinionWorks, about 17,000 residents of the Anacostia watershed consume fish from the river each year. (The vast majority of the river’s catch is catfish; other frequently caught fish, like bass and sunfish, are to be eaten in very limited quantities, according to DDOE.)
The survey—funded in part by the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust—points to a lack of awareness among watershed residents of the dangers of eating fish from the river. Patterson is better informed than many. According to the survey, 44 percent of community residents, 22 percent of Anacostia fishermen, and 53 percent of the sizable population of Spanish-speaking fishermen have never heard that eating fish from the river can cause illness.
DDOE’s public information campaign is mainly limited to the licensing process, which alerts prospective fishermen to the dangers of eating their catch, and bilingual “fish consumption advisory” signs along the river advising fishermen not to “consume your catch before consulting the advisory as printed on your fishing license or online at http://www.ddoe.dc.gov.”
DDOE spokeswoman Donna Henry maintains that the licensing process is simple and affordable—licenses are just $10 for D.C. residents—and that fishermen are eating their catch in spite of the danger, not for lack of awareness. “I don’t think people are eating fish because they don’t know,” she says. “They’re doing it because they enjoy it. It’s something that’s been going on for generations, or it’s their source of food.”
But at least a quarter of the river’s fishermen are unlicensed, according to the study. As for the signs, they’re having a limited effect.
About 200 yards downstream from Patterson is Mike W., who declines to give his last name. He says he’s a regular at the river, and he proudly shows me a few photos on his flip phone of some of the enormous catfish he’s caught.
A few minutes earlier, when I arrived, the 51-year-old from Suitland, Md., had just leaned his bike against one of the advisory signs. But when I ask him if the warning gives him pause, he’s surprised.
“What sign?” he asks and walks back to take a look at it. “I ain’t never read that sign.”
But he already knows that the water “ain’t that clean; it’s got all kinds of stuff in it.” That’s why he never eats the fish he catches. Instead, he usually gives it to other fishermen he sees.
This, it turns out, is a widespread problem. While many Anacostia fishermen may know of the health hazards of eating fish from the river, the OpinionWorks survey finds that they have trouble saying no when impoverished strangers ask them to share.
Nearly half of the river’s fishermen report that they share Anacostia fish with people outside their families. Twenty-one percent eat or share everything they catch, and three-quarters eat or share at least some of what they catch. According to the survey, some even say they sell fish to the Maine Avenue Fish Market—despite DDOE’s assertion that its consumption advisory recommendations “do not apply to fish sold in fish markets, grocery stores, and restaurants, since commercial fishing is prohibited in D.C. waters; thus fish from these venues will not be from the Potomac nor Anacostia Rivers.” (One of the market’s vendors tells me, “We don’t buy from anyone we don’t know,” including Anacostia fisherman.)
But Mike W. shrugs when I ask if the people with whom he shares his catch seem concerned for their health.
“Not to me, they don’t,” he says, and turns back to the river to cast his line.
“To each his own. I look at it like that.”
The Party Barge cruises past blue herons and egrets and kingfishers, under two bald eagles perched high in a tree, and through the wakes of high-school crew teams as it makes it way down the Anacostia. Its name, painted on the bow, is a relic of a former life; these days, the pontoon’s duties are a bit more sobering.
Brent Bolin, the policy director of the Anacostia Watershed Society, is manning the rudder while he recounts the river’s history, likewise more glorious than its present. His colleague Julie Lawson, the nonprofit’s communications and campaign manager, sits farther up with me.
“This river, because it’s so marshy, used to be a great place to hunt for waterfowl,” Bolin says. “And it was known for its fishing.”
No longer—at least not in a way the city can be proud of. We pass Kenilworth Park, a former dump where the city incinerated its trash until a child burned to death in 1968. Now there are a couple of fishermen there at river’s edge, lines in the water. “There’s no good place to fish in the river,” Bolin says, “but that’s literally on top of a toxic site.”
Soon we pass a series of sewer overflow discharge points, where bacteria-laden sewage and stormwater pour into the river whenever a major storm overwhelms the sewer system.
“Every year, two billion gallons of raw sewage is discharged into the river,” Bolin says, shortly before we spot two men fishing right on top of a sewer overflow outfall on the river’s east bank. “Literally, the U.S. Capitol craps in the Anacostia River.”
That problem, Lawson chimes in, will be largely solved by the Clean Rivers Project, which she says will reduce sewer overflows into the river by 98 percent (while also substantially raising consumers’ water bills). Too bad it’s not the worst public health issue facing the river’s neighbors.
That would be embodied by the Pepco Benning Road plant, which looms to our left as we motor downstream. The plant closed in June, but its damage is far from done. Pepco used carcinogenic chemicals called polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in its transformers, and there have been six documented releases of the chemicals from the plant since 1985. PCBs bind to the sediment of the river bed and can remain there for decades, where catfish and other bottom-feeders ingest them.
Multiple studies by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have found more than half of full-grown brown bullhead catfish in the Anacostia to have liver tumors. (Scientists consider rivers with liver-tumor rates above 5 percent to be highly contaminated.) The tumors stem from polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are found in burnt gasoline residue and dripped oil from cars and wash into the river when it rains. Like PCBs, they cling to the river’s sediment.
But PAHs, harmful as they may be to the fish, aren’t the main concern for humans. That title belongs to PCBs. “The main risk of PCBs is the accumulation in the muscle tissue that people eat,” says Fred Pinkney, a biologist at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Pinkney emphasizes that the Pepco plant is just one of many sources of PCBs in the Anacostia. “Anywhere in the watershed, if you have a transformer that blows out because a squirrel electrocuted itself, or it could be just a slow drip, that’ll get into the soil and wash into the storm drain.”
For a 2009 report for DDOE, obtained by Washington City Paper through a Freedom of Information Act request, Pinkney measured the levels of PCBs in the city’s fish. Channel catfish, the most commonly caught fish in the Anacostia, measured .964 parts per million in the Lower Anacostia (south of the CSX Railroad bridge) and .809 parts per million in the Upper Anacostia (up to the Maryland border). The EPA has set a threshold of .02 parts per million as its recommendation for states to develop their own consumption limits.
“Pretty much the most unhealthy fish in the river,” says Bolin, “are the ones people are fishing.”
The Anacostia has been the central artery of Dennis Chestnut’s life since he was a child. Growing up in Hillbrook, he learned to swim in the river, back when public pools were segregated and only a few faraway ones were open to African-Americans.
“One of the things about living east of the river, we were in a lot of ways very cut off from the city,” says the 63-year-old, who lives in his boyhood home. “It was ‘over there,’ so to speak, and there were no pools available to us. So fortunately we had the benefit of the river.”
Even back then, Chestnut thinks, the river probably wasn’t suitable for swimming, but there was less public information at the time. He and the other kids lived by two rules. “No. 1, if you saw fish, well, if it was OK for the fish, it was OK for us. And No. 2, as long as we could see our feet, we figured it was OK.”
A half-century later, Chestnut is armed with considerably more knowledge as executive director of Groundwork Anacostia River D.C., a nonprofit that engages local communities to reclaim derelict land in the watershed. But he sees it lacking among his neighbors.
“The information is mediocre to a great extent,” Chestnut says, noting that many locals think cooking Anacostia fish will make them safe to eat. “You have a lot of people who fish the river who don’t read the language that the postings are listed in. Also, you’ve got to deal with literacy. And the kind of outreach that’s needed is not being done.”
Unfortunately, the only effective outreach might not be entirely honest. The city’s vague warnings about illness from the fish haven’t worked. “If you’ve eaten the fish and never felt sick,” Bolin says, “and someone tells you, ‘Hey, eating this fish will make you sick,’ you say, ‘No, it won’t. I eat it every week.’
So Lawson says the way to change people’s behavior is with direr warnings—even if there haven’t been any studies directly linking Anacostia fish to human disease.
“We found that the only way to get through to them,” Lawson says, “is to say, ‘You’re going to get cancer.’”
Photos by Aaron Wiener. Graphic by Jandos Rothstein.