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Standing under the 11th Street Bridge in Southeast D.C., looking across the Anacostia River, Steve Vermillion remembers the decade he spent rowing here in the late 90's and early 2000's. At the time, he couldn't have fathomed the history of pollution in the river and along its banks, or how long that contamination could actually hang around.
And he definitely wasn't expecting the kind of health problems that have plagued him since then.
"I was rowing out of this site maybe 130, 140 times a year and coming down to do landscaping and building projects to renovate the boathouse," Vermillion says.
The boathouse is gone now; it's a construction site for the bridge's widening project. But some things haven't changed. There are still pools of water that are jet black, and strange odors are still noticeable in the breezes here.
"I used to come down and ... you'd smell diesel fuel in the air. And I would wonder what is that smell?" Vermillion says. "Nobody paid that much attention to it but you could smell it. I'd have a faint taste of it on my tongue."
Between a rock and a hard place
Vermillion didn't know his boathouse was wedged between an Environmental Protection Agency-regulated Superfund site at the Washington Navy Yard, and a highly contaminated former Washington Gas & Light Coal Gasification plant.
He didn't know that the groundwater and sediments were contaminated with carcinogenic materials -- benzene, PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls), PAH's (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and dioxins among them -- or that a plume of coal tar was several feet beneath the surface where he would dig.
But he would find out after his failing health prompted him to do a little research. In November of 2008, he went to the doctor for what he thought was the flu. Days later, he was vomiting blood. Doctors diagnosed him with AML leukemia.
According to the National Institutes of Health, AML leukemia is associated with a number of things, among them exposure to benzene, one of the compounds leftover from that Washington Gas plant. Vermillion can never know for sure what caused his illness, but he has suspicions.
"I have no idea whether that's the exact cause but it seems logical to me," he says, citing three others that used to row at the same boathouse and have gotten sick. "One woman who rowed at the club has lymphoma, another woman who had AML leukemia, same as me, and then a third woman who rowed into her pregnancy, and her son was born with leukemia."
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry does not believe the Navy Yard Site is a public health risk because it's unlikely for people to come in contact with the contaminants there. As for the Washington Gas site, the National Park Service concluded that levels of benzene and other compounds were below levels that could be expected to increase the public health risk of cancer. Washington Gas has removed several feet of soil from the area and continuously pumps groundwater to reduce the migration of the coal tar plume.
But the contamination is very much present, and it is one of the reasons why D.C. urges people not to eat the fish here.
Underground, decades of pollution
This type of pollution is called legacy. It's why 57 percent of lakes and estuaries in Virginia and Maryland don't meet water quality standards.
The contaminants are wide ranging, says Bryant Thomas with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. PCB's - which served as an insulator in machinery -- are a known carcinogen; they were banned in 1979. Other offenders are old pesticides that may now be banned: DDT (banned in 1972), chlordanes (banned in 1988), and heptachlor (also banned in 1988).
"They don't break down easily over time," Thomas says. "They've gotten into the environment. And they're continuing to be detected and found."
Wildlife shares pollution burden
At last count, around 2,200 miles of river and stream, 78,000 acres of lake, and nearly 2,700 square miles of estuary that aren't fully suitable for fishing in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.
They reason? Even if the levels of these contaminants in the water are low, they can still become more concentrated in the tissues of fish, especially bottom feeders. That poses a risk for humans who might regularly eat fish from contaminated areas, but also for the fish themselves.
PCBs weaken their immune systems, making them susceptible to far more parasites and pathogens. And PAH's -- compounds in exhaust, oil and coal tar that have long seeped into waterways and continue to do so -- are strongly linked to cancer in bullhead catfish, according to Fred Pinkney, with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"In our last survey in 2000, 2001, over 50 percent of the brown bullheads we caught from the Anacostia had liver tumors, and about 20 or 30 percent had skin tumors," Pinkney says.
Oil at root of many contaminants
But contaminants in fish are not the whole story. Other indicators of pollution past are more mundane. State officials or even residents often run into an old leaky fuel tank that no one knew about, or a plume from a gas station that has been closed for years.
In one example, a gas station in Chillum, Md. was found to have an old tank leaking in 1989.
"Everyone in the neighborhood was calling people, 'cause you could smell it," says Diane Carpenter, who lived just across the line from Chillum in Riggs Park, in Northeast D.C. "And when it rained it would leave like a gasoline sheen on the street."
It would be 11 years before residents were told that a 1,300-foot plume of gas had crept under their neighborhood. Carpenter's daughter, who lived in a basement apartment in her home, became sick with asthma.
"Eventually she had to have some major surgery on her nasal passages because the fumes had burned into the nasal passages into her nose," says Carpenter. She moved her daughter out of the basement, and Chevron and the EPA put in vapor mitigation systems in the house to keep fumes from accumulating.
Lessons learned, but the legacy remains
Governments and the private sector have made great strides in remediation tactics in the past few decades, and now, new laws regulating storage tanks have been put into place. And things are a lot better than they were 30 and 40 years ago.
"I'm old enough to remember the 70's and 60's and the stench that came from many of our waters," says Tom Faha, regional director for Virginia DEQ. "We don't have that anymore."
But when a legacy contaminant is really spread out, there's really not a lot you can do about it.
"In some cases they're rather ubiquitous in the environment. It's not something you would remediate. It's just something you have to let nature do its course," says , says Bryant Thomas, with Virginia's DEQ. "It could be decades, many, many decades, before we see those issues resolve themselves through that natural process."