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Washington Navy Yard: Contaminated Groundwater Migration not under control February 16, 2009

Posted by yostliketoast in Environmental Health.
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Browsing the Center for Public Integrity’s website, I discovered that D.C.’s historic Washington Navy Yard was listed as an active Superfund site: a large polluter requiring a federally mandated clean-up. Although little information was given about the site and Publicintegrity.org did not list the contaminates or any potential public health risk, one statement did catch my eye:

Contaminated Groundwater Migration” not under control

I was intrigued. The idea that the water I drink everyday could be contaminated scared me and prompted me to further investigate this topic.


The Washington Navy Yard is located at 901 M Street in Southeast Washington D.C. The site is bordered to the south by the Anacostia River, which feeds into the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay. It encompasses 170 square miles of watershed in Maryland and D.C. To the west of the Navy Yard is the Southeast Federal Center and to the north is a public housing development.

The site’s legacy of military industrial activities has resulted in a number of contaminated waste sites, several of which have caused leakages into the environment. Thus, in 1998, the Washington Navy Yard was recommended and subsequently added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Priorities List. The decision came after studies detected contamination in the adjacent Anacostia River, in on-site sediment and soil, as well as in groundwater below the property.

Upon further investigation, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reported 51 contaminates associated with the site: 1,2,4- Trichlorobenzene, 1,2-Dichloroethylene, Acenaphthene, Acetone, Aluminum, Aroclor, Aresnic, Barium, Benzo(a)anthracene, Benzo(a)Fluoranthene, Benzo(a)pyrene, Benzo(b)Fluoranthene , Benzo(k)Fluoranthene, Beryllium, Butyl Benzyl Phthalate, Cadmium, Chlordane, Chloroform, Chloromethane, Chromium, Chrysene, Copper, DDT, P,P, Di(2-Ethylhexyl)Phthalate, Di-N-Octyl Phthalate, Dibenzo(A,H)Anthracene, Dieldrin, Dioxins, Fluorandthene, Fluorne, Indeno(1,2,3-CD)Pyrene, Iron, Lead, Manganese, Mercury, Metals N.O.S., Methylene Chloride, Naphthalene, Nickel, Pesticides N.O.S , Petroleum Hydrocarbons (Fuel), Phenanthrene, Phthalates N.O.S, Polychlorinated Biphenyls, Polycyclic aromic Hydrocarbons, Pyrene, Semivolatile Organic Componds N.O.S., Petroleum Hydrocarbons, Vanadium, Volitile Organic, Componds, and Zinc.

While many of these chemicals may present environmental and health effects if exposed to the public, the primary contaminants of concern are metals in groundwater, lead in surface soil, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the river’s sediment and fish. These contaminants, as well as some petroleum hydrocarbons, pesticides, and other semi-volatile organic compounds, are at levels above the ATSDR health-based comparison values.

After review by the ATSDR, the groundwater directly under the site was reported to have high levels of metals. However, both the EPA and ATSDR ensure Washington D.C. residents that the city’s water source is an area of the Potomac River located upstream from the contaminated ground water (to my relief). The ASDR also claims that because there is no known public exposure to groundwater underlying the yard, it poses no apparent public health risk (although it does merit further investigation).

Admiral’s Row, an area owned by the navy yard, contained lead concentrations in surface soil above the ATSDR comparison value for soil. Due to a lack of data, the ATSDR cannot conclude the health implications from current or previous exposure. However, the report does state that:

Past soil exposure to Admiral’s Row surface soil is a completed exposure pathway with the potential for adverse health effects to children.

Lead exposure adversely affects the nervous system causing decrease neurological function in both children and adults. It may also cause anemia and reproductive failure and at high levels can severely damage the brain and kidneys and ultimately cause death. The EPA has also determined lead as a probable human carcinogen.

Ongoing studies by several organizations have raised concerns about the presence of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the Anacostia River’s sediment and Fish. The ATSDR concluded that the consumption of locally-caught fish is a second “completed exposure pathway.” A fish advisory was placed in 1989 and in 1994, which urges the public to refrain from consuming catfish, carp, or eel and to limit consumption of largemouth bass, sunfish, and other fish. Nonetheless, some citizens continue to eat fish and eel caught from the Anacostia River near the Washington Navy Yard.

ASTDR recent findings indicate that certain populations are at an elevated risk of experiencing adverse health and disease due to consumption of PCB contaminated fish. Certain ethnic groups, sport anglers, the elderly, pregnant women, children, fetuses, and nursing infants are the most susceptible populations. Health effects include: increased risks for cancer such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, systemic effects including liver disease and diabetes, thyroid disease, and weakened immune systems, increase reproductive failure, and neurobehavioral and developmental deficits occur in newborns and school-aged children who had in-utero exposure to PCBs.

Although it is fascinating to explore the environmental health hazards of my own community, it is also alarming to find such a lack of information or conclusions. Today, the EPA and the Washington Navy Yard are working to clean up the contaminated sites. However, like most cleanup initiatives, the process is protracted and the enforcement lacking. I am particularly alarmed that although the site was discovered to be a polluter in the early 1980’s, ground water contamination migration has yet to be addressed. Even if there are no immediate public health concerns at present, I believe the lack of information regarding the potential for exposure merits an immediate concern for the public and the EPA alike.

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