Greater Greater Washington

Posts by Julie Lawson

Julie Lawson is director of the Trash Free Maryland Alliance, a network of organizations working to reduce trash pollution through a common policy agenda. She previously worked for the Anacostia Watershed Society, volunteered with the Surfrider Foundation, and was principal at Communication Visual, a design studio for nonprofit organizations. She lives in Takoma DC with her son Owen. 

Sustainability


A sunken gas station sculpture sends the wrong message about the Anacostia River

Update: The DC Department of the Environment has decided not to allow the sculpture in the Anacostia due to environmental concerns.

Would a sunken gas station in the Anacostia, a piece of public art, spark discussion around climate change or hinder other environmental restoration in DC? A coalition of Anacostia River advocates is opposing installation of this sculpture in the river.


Watercolor of the proposed Antediluvian. Image from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

Antediluvian, by Canadian artist Mia Feuer, would be a replica of a gas station that appears to be partly submerged in the river. Feuer proposes placing the piece near Kingman Island, within view of commuters on the East Capitol Street bridge.

Feuer hopes to stir conversation and action about climate change, but the project has drawn a different kind of controversy. United for a Healthy Anacostia River, a coalition of environmental and recreation groups working on Anacostia River restoration, is asking the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities to withdraw support for the project, saying it will undermine a push to change the public's perception of the river.

We "have been working for years to change the image and the reality of the Anacostia River from a badly polluted eyesore and public heath hazard dividing the District of Columbia to an invaluable 21st Century recreation and economic asset for the region," says the letter. In recent years advocates have been working to undo the notion of the "forgotten river," in hopes of tearing down the proverbial yellow tape and inviting more people to personally experience the river and its restoration.

Stephanie Sherman, the curator who chose Antediluvian to exhibit in DC, said, "We are in support of the ecology and landscape and in no way ever intended to disparage this part of nature."

But others disagree.

Charles Allen, the Democratic nominee for the Ward 6 seat on the DC Council, said, "My concern is about the location in the Anacostia Rivernot the art project itself. I think the artist is attempting to highlight a very real, and very important, issue regarding the damaging effects of climate change. My concern is that sinking a gas station in the Anacostia sends exactly the wrong message about all of the incredibly hard work over the last few years to begin rebuilding the health of the River."

"As someone who has been using art to try and shift perceptions of the river, this project sends all the wrong messages," said Krista Schlyer, a Mount Rainier photographer. "People already view the Anacostia as a polluted lost cause. It isn'tit's filled with wild creatures, unique plant communities and amazing places of respite and recreation for people.

"The river has challenges, significant ones. But I think part of the reason why we haven't made more progress toward honoring the mandate of the Clean Water Act is because people have given up on the Anacostia--and a half-sunken gas station in the middle of it is not going to help."


Photo of the Anacostia River used with permission from Krista Schlyer.

How about the Potomac?

While it might be logistically easier to place the sculpture in the Anacostia, it could have a much more effective message in the Potomac River.

More people cross that river every day, including more members of Congress and other policymakers. So do more tourists, members of the news media, and other people who should be a greater part of the conversation around climate change.

The Potomac does flow faster, and the federal government is more protective of viewsheds in the Potomac. But for many reasons, the Potomac is more of a national river while the Anacostia is more of a local one, and climate change is a national (and global) issue.

Could the project harm the environment?

Sherman says the project will have "no impact on the environment," but that is not clear. The District Department of the Environment just last week began a months-long project to sample the sediment and water, known to be contaminated with toxic chemicals like PCBs. Results from the sampling will inform a plan to clean up the sediment.

The area of the river proposed for the art installation has never been sampled, says Richard Jackson, Acting Associate Director of the DDOE Environmental Services Administration. While the artwork will be tethered to Kingman Island and will float, Jackson is concerned: "Any disturbance could skew the sampling results."

DDOE has not yet received a permit application from the artist.

In a statement, DCCAH Executive Director Lionell Thomas said the artwork is still under review. "As the DCCAH moved through the process of implementation, we learned from the community that there are environmental concerns," the statement reads. "As responsible stewards, the DCCAH is working to address those concerns to ensure that we do not disturb the Anacostia River's ecosystem."

"I've got nothing against the artist or her message," said Doug Siglin, Executive Director of UHAR. "A lot more people need to get a grip on climate change before it's too late. But people also need to get a grip on what belongs in the Anacostia River and what doesn't. Here are five things that don't belong there: Toxic chemicals. Trash. Excrement of any kind. Oil and gas. And mock gas stations."

I reached out to the artist for input but have not yet heard back.

Disclosure: I previously worked for the Anacostia Watershed Society and created the Rediscover Your Anacostia messaging campaign, which aims to get residents to celebrate and appreciate the Anacostia River.

Government


The plastics industry says trash is not a problem in the Anacostia River. DC councilmembers disagree.

The DC Council could vote to ban foam food containers on Monday. The plastics industry is hoping otherwise.


Foam packaging along the Potomac River. Photo by Cheryl Williams, Surfrider Foundation

The plastics lobby descended on the Wilson building this week to make a last-ditch push to block a proposed polystyrene ban, up for a final vote on Monday. The bill passed the council unanimously on June 24.

Led by Dart Container and the American Chemistry Council, the industry lobbyists want to delay the ban until more study is done on trash in the Anacostia River, even though research has been ongoing for more than five years.

The Anacostia Watershed Society has been tracking material caught in Nash Run, near the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, since 2009. By volume, foam is typically about a quarter of the floatable trash they capture.


Trash, by volume, collected from the Nash Run Trash Trap. Image from the Anacostia Watershed Society.

The proposed ban is part of Mayor Vincent Gray's Sustainable DC plan, and is included along with ten other measures in the Sustainable DC Omnibus Act of 2013. The ban would cover expanded polystyrene foam food containers like cups, clamshells, and plates that you might get at fast food or carryout restaurants.

While it doesn't take effect until 2016, the District is already preparing to support businesses with a list of vendors of alternative materials, and coordinating cooperative buying arrangements to help lower costs. Many small businesses already use compostable or recyclable packaging, knowing that their customers prefer sustainable alternatives.

Polystyrene foam bans are already in place in more than 100 cities around the country, in response to research on plastic pollution in the oceans and persistent litter in neighborhoods. Even Congress tried to get rid of polystyrene in its cafeterias under former Speaker (now Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi's watch. DC would be the first in the region to pass such a ban, though Baltimore has been debating one for several years.

As plastics go, polystyrene is one of the worst. Styrene itself is a possible carcinogen, with a risk of transfer particularly via hot foods. Once in the water, polystyrene behaves like all other petrochemicals and absorbs fertilizers and pesticides, but at ten times the rate of other types of plastic. If a fish eats those tiny piecesor a volunteer picks it up at a river cleanupit can be exposed to toxic chemicals.

The bill is on the agenda for Monday's legislative meeting. For more information, and to contact your councilmember, see banthefoam.org.

Sustainability


Barry: "Have courage" and pass the Maryland bag fee

Yesterday morning, DC Councilmembers Marion Barry and Tommy Wells went to Annapolis together to brief the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus on the success of DC's 5¢ disposable bag fee, and ask them to support a similar proposal currently before the Maryland General Assembly.


Photo by the author.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act (HB1086/SB576) would mirror the District's Anacostia River Cleanup and Protection Act and Montgomery County's bag law, which impose a 5¢ charge on all disposable plastic and paper bags retailers give out.

As in DC and Montgomery County, the bill intends to reduce the number of disposable bags shoppers use, and thus reduce litter and water pollution. Grocery stores report giving out 70% fewer bags since the fees took effect.

Delegate Michael Summers (D-Prince George's), a lead sponsor of the bill, introduced Barry as "everybody's mayor," and caucus members and the audience responded with a standing ovation. Barry went on to explain how Councilmember Tommy Wells had convinced him of the need for the bill by taking Barry out to the banks of the Anacostia River and showing just how much plastic bags pollute the river.

Wells provided context and rationale for the bag fee, and called it the "most successful environmental initiative in DC." He described how discount grocery stores like Aldi and Save-a-Lot have never given bags away for free, as part of their commitment to keeping prices as low as possible.

Barry concluded the briefing by urging his Maryland counterparts to "have courage," noting that the "community benefits are worth far more than five cents." After the meeting, Barry committed to further supporting the effort. "We have to do more to educate them," he said.

While the Anacostia River has seen significant reductions in plastic bag pollution, more than half of the river's watershed is in Prince George's County, which does not yet have a bag fee.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act was heard by the Senate's Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The next public hearing, before the House Environmental Matters Committee, is scheduled for March 8. In addition to Summers, the bill's sponsors are Delegate Mary Washington (D-Baltimore City), Senator Jamie Raskin (D-Montgomery), and Senator Brian Frosh (D-Montgomery).

Sustainability


Montgomery County underestimated plastic bag use

Last week brought a wave of news stories looking back at the first year of the Montgomery County bag fee. Some of them (particularly the Washington Post) concluded the bag fee is ineffective at changing behavior, as shoppers did not appear to be switching from disposable bags to reusable ones as intended.


Photo by katerha on Flickr.

This conclusion is incorrect. And it's all because of one number.

Montgomery County appears to have vastly underestimated disposable bag use before the fee took effect and has not provided information on its methodology in developing pre-bag fee estimates on usage. The County says 82.9 million plastic bags were used annually before the fee. In fact, it was likely closer to 300 million.

According to a 2009 report by the US International Trade Commission, Americans used 102,105,637,000 plastic bags in 2008. That works out to about 335 bags per person. This number is used by jurisdictions all over the country in estimating the impact of bag ordinances.

If the pre-fee bag usage was in fact closer to 300 million, then the post-fee numbers actually indicate significant behavior change, in the neighborhood of a 60-70% reduction, which is similar to what DC has observed since putting its bag fee into effect.

The County also reports that it has collected just over $2 million in revenue through November 2012. Some councilmembers have raised concerns that the revenues are too high. But DC collects $1.8 to 2 million per year from its bag fee, and is only two-thirds the size of Montgomery County (and with fewer businesses subject to the bag fee). Thus Montgomery's revenue numbers seem to be on track.

In fact, Safeway spokesman Craig Muckle says in the Capital Gazette, "In Montgomery County, Safeway saw a 70 percent drop in plastic bag use at the checkouts from 2011 to 2012. There could be other factors, but I am pretty sure the bag fee has a lot to do with it. We saw similar results from the bag fee in the District."

Likewise, stream protection organizations are seeing fewer bags in cleanups of their waterways. These results are even being reported by Montgomery County Department of Parks and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission.

Bob Hoyt, Director of the Montgomery County Department of Environmental Protection, issued this statement:

Montgomery County is committed to reducing litter and is committed to the County's Bag Law as one of the primary ways of accomplishing this goal. I believe from my own observations when I am shopping, from anecdotal information from others, reports from environmental groups engaged in litter clean ups and reports from retailers about reduced bag use that the Law is working. The Bag Law is changing consumer behavior much in the same way recycling did 20 years ago. We are committed to gathering the appropriate data but are convinced that it will confirm the positive impact the Law is having on Montgomery County's environment.

Montgomery County is a leader for Maryland and has been effective at reducing plastic litter through its disposable bag fee. It's a shame that one bad number is calling into question all that good work.

Sustainability


Thousands eating contaminated Anacostia River fish

At least 17,000 people in the lower Anacostia watershed eat fish from the river every year. These fish spend years swimming in polluted water and resting and feeding amidst sediment contaminated with toxic chemicals.


Anacostia Park, June 2012. Photo by the author.

This contamination is very likely ending up on people's dinner plates. In many cases, the people eating this fish have limited resources and few alternatives for safer food.

The Washington City Paper recently discussed these findings from a report, Addressing the Risk, the Anacostia Watershed Society, the US Environmental Protection Agency, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA, Chesapeake Bay Trust, and other local entities assisted in the report.

The team set out to understand how large the subsistence fishing population was, and how much they knew about the river pollution and the risk of eating fish from it. We did not expect to find so many people sharing the fish so widely.

How do you refuse an elderly neighbor on food stamps, when she asks you to bring back a fish? Or if you've been unemployed for a while, but need to feed your family, how do you resist a free, local meal? If you're hungry today, is it worth the risk that the chemicals in the fish might cause cancer in 20 years?

Many fishermen are in fact aware that the river is polluted and that the fish reflect that. They have informal methods for screening the fish, and many will throw back a fish with lesions, cloudy eyes, or other outward signs of sickness. But those methods are further evidence that the fishermen think the fish are only contaminated on the outside, and don't address the PCBs hiding in the fatty tissue within.

Even if they don't plan to eat the fish themselves, the pleas of a neighbor in need or a passing child are irresistible. The fishermen feel like they have helped in their generosity.

Obviously the long-term solution is to clean up the river. We should be able to paddle, fish, and even swim in the river without worrying about damaging our health. Cleaning up the six legacy toxic sites and reducing polluted stormwater runoff (which carries toxins from roads, parking lots, and other hard surfaces) will go a long way.

In the meantime, we need to do more to educate everyone, and particularly at-risk groups like women of childbearing age, about the condition of the river and the risks of consuming its fish. It is also incumbent on leaders in DC and Maryland to improve access to other healthy food. Generally speaking, fish is a very healthy protein. Could the DC area support aquaculture, perhaps in a community-supported model?

AWS and its partners will be holding a community meeting in Ward 7 in early December to answer questions about the research and begin the discussion of how we solve the problem. We hope councilmembers and community leaders will come and pledge to be part of the solution.

Sustainability


What killed the Prince George's County bag bill?

On Saturday, the Environmental Matters committee of the Maryland House of Delegates voted down a measure that would have let Prince George's County create a 5¢ bag fee, similar to those in Montgomery and DC.


Oxon Run. Photo from the Alice Ferguson Foundation.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the bill narrowly passed a vote by the county delegation, and advocates thought they had cleared the biggest hurdle. Local bills with support from the delegation usually sail through the rest of the way as a courtesy. It was case of counting our chickens before they hatched, perhaps, but the road this bill took was far from typical.

Saturday's vote was 12 to 11 in support but, with 24 members on the committee, we needed 13 yeas to move forward. A quick look at the vote count shows that, surprisingly, Montgomery County Delegate Jim Gilchrist, a friend of the environment, voted no.

According to other members of the committee, Gilchrist incorrectly thought the measure had failed in the delegation vote, so he thought he was supporting the wishes of the county by voting against it.

However, we also know that committee chairwoman Maggie McIntosh had concerns about the bill's ability to pass on the floor of the House. THe House has considered a tremendous number of new taxes and fees this session, and just last week approved raising income taxes.

McIntosh feared "fee fatigue" would doom the bill even though it would only indirectly create a new fee. McIntosh voted last in the committee vote, and there is no guarantee that she would have voted yea if hers had been the 13th and deciding vote.

Along with Councilmember Mary Lehman, the bill's champion on the Council, County Executive Rushern Baker personally worked hard to support the bill. Just Friday he released a press release reaffirming the need for the bill. As Baker is himself a former delegate, the committee warmly received his testimony during last week's hearing and he regularly reached out to leadership to check the bill's status and reinforce it as an executive priority.

The outcome likely would have been different had the delegation vote not been so close. It passed with the minimum 12 votes, with 9 opposed (two were absent). As DC experienced during its attempt to pass a container deposit in the 1980s, the industry opposition successfully couched the issue in racial and socioeconomic terms. They specifically appealed to central and south county residents in their tactics, relying on robocalls to mislead constituents and flood delegate offices with comments, and running ads on predominantly African-American radio stations and in newspapers.

These tactics prompted Delegate Veronica Turner, a co-sponsor of the statewide version of the bag fee, to switch positions, because she believed her constituents were vehemently opposed.

In response, advocates supporting the bill canvassed grocery store parking lots in Turner's district in Oxon Hill, and collected more than 300 signatures over a couple of weekends. They reported that shoppers were extremely supportive of the proposal once they learned that it was intended to reduce litter and create a fund for environmental restoration.

Turner was reportedly open to reversing her position, but she then fell ill and was hospitalized, and has since missed the rest of the legislative session. Her absence prevented a delegation subcommittee from giving the bill a favorable report, leading to the impression that the bill had died in February. (Perhaps this is the vote Gilchrist was remembering.)

Delegate Barbara Frush, who introduced the bill in the House, has faith that the county will eventually have a bag fee. The delegation leadership will change next year as part of the state's redistricting, potentially putting a stronger ally in the chairmanship.

In addition, the county has extensive environmental obligations, including reducing trash in the Anacostia River and dramatically improving stormwater management, and a bag fee would address both. While the county cannot enact a fee this year, other options are still on the table. The problems aren't going to go away on their own.

Sustainability


Prince George's bag fee wins key vote in Maryland House

This morning, delegates that represent Prince George's County in the Maryland House of Delegates voted 12 to 9 in support of HB895, which would let let the county enact a 5¢ fee on disposable plastic and paper bags. This was the most significant hurdle, and the bill now has a very high chance of becoming law.


Reusable bag distributed by Montgomery County. Image via Nancy Navarro.

The bill now moves to the Environmental Matters Committee of the House, and then to the floor of the full House. For local bills like this one, those votes are usually a formality, as the current legislature prefers to support the counties' wishes.

The county's senators must also support the bill, but it passed easily last session and no senators are known to have changed their position.

Opponents of the billthe manufacturers of plastic bagshave paid a fortune to lobby agsint the bill, with thousands of robocalls misleading citizens and flooding delegate offices.

The County Affairs subcommittee was unable to get 4 of 6 votes, as required by the Maryland constitution, to either recommend for or against the bill (or even to agree on "no recommendation"), but after 3 such votes it was eligible to move up to the full delegation anyway.

The bill's supporters withstood the pressure and protected home rule, allowing the Prince George's County Council to now take up the bag fee this fall. The county council voted 8-0, with one abstention, last month to support this measure. (The abstention was Karen Toles, who has been in the news this week for other reasons.)

The council's authority to enact a fee will take effect in October. Should the statewide bag fee bill also pass, the council will have 6 months to pass the county's program in order to be exempt from the statewide system.

The supporting delegates were sponsor Barbara Frush, Ben Barnes, Dereck Davis, Joseline Pena-Melnyk, Doyle Neimann, Michael Summers, James Hubbard, Kris Valder­rama, Anne Healey, Tawanna Gaines, Justin Ross, and Jolene Ivey. Delegate Ivey attended despite being on bereavement leave following the death of her father last week.

Sustainability


It's time for a statewide bag fee in Maryland

DC's 5¢ bag fee is now 2 years old, and it has unquestionably achieved its goals. Shoppers have overwhelmingly switched to using reusable bags to carry their purchases, and fewer plastic bags are polluting the Anacostia River. But we all live downstream of somewhere, and bags and other trash continue to come in from Maryland and tarnish DC's waters.


Photo from Trash Free Anacostia.

Montgomery County enacted its own bag fee last year, and Prince George's County wants to follow suit but needs state permission. Many in both counties recog­nize that disposable bags are outdated and need to be phased out to help our communities combat litter.

However, trash doesn't know political boundaries. It is now time for Maryland to step up and pass a state­wide bag fee. The General Assembly has considered the proposal twice before without success, but many good bills take a few tries before they pass.

While the political climate remains challenging, the tide is turning. Chestertown, on the Eastern Shore, banned plastic bags outright. Howard County and Baltimore City have also expressed interest in a bag fee.

As these ordinances vary from county to county, stores with multiple locations will have more difficulty complying with all the laws, and consumers will need to remember which jurisdiction they are shopping in. A consistent statewide approach will do the most to reduce litter and be better for both retailers and shoppers.

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act, sponsored this year by Senator Brian Frosh (District 16-Montgomery County) and Delegate Mary Washington (District 43-Baltimore City), will copy the Montgomery County law and enact a 5¢ fee on plastic and paper checkout bags at all stores throughout the state.

Retailers will keep 1¢ of the fee. The Department of Human Resources will use fee funds to purchase and distribute free reusable bags to all low-income residents via community service centers and faith and social service institutions. The state will split the remaining proceeds between the counties, to pay for water quality improvement projects, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which will give out grants to restore the environment.

Baltimore, in particular, will benefit from a serious approach to litter reduction. As with the Anacostia River, the EPA has declared the Baltimore Harbor "impaired" by trash under the Clean Water Act, and the city faces steep fines for violations. The city currently spends upwards of $10 million every year to clean up litter; taxpayers are already paying a lot, and that burden will only continue to increase.

"Litter brings down the quality of life for residents," said Halle Van der Gaag, Executive Director of Blue Water Baltimore. "It is not only visually ugly but contaminates our waterways. Preventing it in the first place is more sustainable in the long-term."

The Senate's Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee is holding a public hearing on SB511 on Tuesday at 1 pm; the House's Economic Matters Committee will hear HB1247 on Wednesday, March 14.

To show your support for the measure, send an email or find your representatives' phone numbers through the Surfrider Foundation. You can also participate in a Lobby Night next Monday, March 5, to go to Annapolis and meet with your legislators in person. RSVP by visiting www.mdlobbynight.com.

For more information about bag fees and the campaign supporting this legislation, visit the Trash Free Maryland Alliance.

Sustainability


Prince George's bag fee not dead, but needs your help

On Wednesday, a preliminary vote on the Prince George's County disposable bag fee failed to move the measure forward. The Washington Post's article explained many of the dynamics, but the headline suggested the bill was dead. It's not, but it needs residents' help to pass.


Image from Trash Free Anacostia.

Unlike in Montgomery County, where a 5¢ fee began last month on plastic and paper shopping bags much like the one in DC, Prince George's County (and almost all other Maryland jurisdictions) needs permission from the General Assembly to enact certain taxes and fees. Bill PG 402-12, sponsored by Senator Paul Pinsky (D-District 22) and Delegate Barbara Frush (D-District 21), would give the county that authority for a bag fee.

"Local bills" like this one, which apply just to a single county, go through a different and much more complicated process than regular bills. A small committee of the county's legislative delegation, the County Affairs Committee, first discusses the bill, which happened Wednesday.

This committee voted 3-2 in support. Unfortunately, a bill needs 4 votes to earn a "favorable" rating from the committeeand that is how it "lost." But the committee can reconsider the bill if it wants, or the full county delegation of 24 delegates can take up the bill without a favorable report from the committee. If it's going to move forward any further, though, residents of Prince George's County need to contact their delegates now.

The plastics industry is paying for hundreds of robocalls, giving legislators the impression that there is strong public opposition. Supportive county residents and workers need to call and email and have their voices heard.

All Prince George's delegates are important, but one particularly important vote is Delegate Veronica Turner (District 26). She is a member of the County Affairs Committee, but was absent the day of the vote.

As DC has seen over the last 2 years, making the cost of single-use bags transparent by charging a nickel for them is a powerful motivator to switch to reusable bags. Three-quarters of DC residents say they have reduced their use of plastic bags, and businesses large and small have saved thousands of dollars by not having to buy as many bags.

Volunteers are picking up fewer bags during river cleanups, and grant money is flowing to green businesses and nonprofit organizations (including mine) that work to restore the Anacostia River, creating jobs. Low-income residents have received thousands of free reusable bags.

DC Councilmember Tommy Wells authored the bag fee as a step toward removing trash from the Anacostia River. But 50% of the river's watershed is in Prince George's County, making county the most important piece of the restoration puzzle.

Prince George's County spends $2.5 million each year picking up litter, and with new limits on trash pollution in the Anacostia River, the public expense is only going to go up. Shoppers pay more for food and other products because retailers add the cost of those "free" bags to pricesas much as $37.50 per year for the average shopper. There is no such thing as a free bag.

Finally, it's a matter of home rule. The County Council voted 8-0, with one abstention, to endorse PG 402-12. County Executive Rushern Baker has taken this campaign on as a personal project. If county leaders want to proactively address an environmental problem, why should the General Assembly interfere?

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