Comparison of the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers Reveals a Prime Example of Environmental Racism

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

With the recent growth of the racial justice movement and the existing prominence of the environmental justice movement, awareness of racism at the intersection of these two efforts, environmental racism, has increased. According to Green Action, a grassroots organization that focuses on inequities in environmental justice and health, environmental racism refers to “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color.

Due to the niche nature of the concept, individuals are blind to the environmental racism that blatantly occurs in their own or nearby communities. One significant example of this is in the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) area, where the Anacostia and Potomac rivers differ considerably in their water quality. After taking a closer look, it is clear that this is directly linked to the race and status of each river’s surrounding communities.

Geographical Location

Starting in Prince George’s County in Maryland, the Anacostia River flows for 8.7 miles into Washington D.C., where it joins the Potomac River and empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

The Anacostia is widely referred to as the “forgotten river” due to its location on the “wrong side” of D.C. This area was given this name due to its history of being underserved, less affluent, and more ethnically diverse than the rest of D.C.

On the other hand, the Potomac River, composed of a North and South branch, begins in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. The two branches flow northeast and eventually unite southeast of Cumberland, Maryland, where they continue through the District of Columbia. When the Potomac starts, the North branch serves as a boundary between Maryland and West Virginia. Eventually, it turns into a boundary between Maryland and Virginia at its ends. Through analysis of the locations of these rivers, connection will begin to form between their quality and their surrounding communities.

River Quality

The Anacostia River has been neglected for decades, making it one of the most polluted rivers in the nation as a result. Due to city, state, and federal governments failing to protect the river and its watershed, over 500,000,000 gallons of raw sewage end up in the river annually— an issue that is exacerbated by the outdated and poor sewer infrastructure. According to EarthJustice, a premier nonprofit public interest environmental law organization, the Anacostia also contains bacteria levels thousands of times more toxic than public health standards. A report released by DC Appleseed, a law and justice-driven organization that strives to solve problems affecting the lives of those in the National Capital area, calls the Anacostia “one of the most polluted waterways in the nation.”

In contrast the Potomac River received straight “A’s” in the fields of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediments — key measures of pollution. Moreover, large populations of fishers, kayakers, and rowers regularly inhabit the Potomac River, which is another difference between the two rivers that indicates a higher river quality for the Potomac.

In an NPR podcast on the pollution of the Anacostia River, Jacob Fenton of the West African Monetary Union described the river’s burning smell. “You’d smell not just the trash [of the river] but the smoke from open-air trash fires,” he said. After analyzing the quality of the rivers, it is evident that this disparity is actually based on the surrounding communities and lack of urgency to maintain the rivers. The detriments of this disparity is environmental racism.

Surrounding Communities

The Anacostia River primarily runs through the Anacostia neighborhood: a sector of Washington D.C. that is 96.8% Black. The river marks a socioeconomic divide in D.C. The east side of the river, which contains the neighborhood of Anacostia, displays a poverty rate that is three times higher than the rest of D.C. Furthermore, of all impoverished children in D.C., 71% live east of the Anacostia River. These low-income and predominantly people-of-color-inhabited communities are disproportionately impacted due to the lack of infrastructure, such as the aforementioned faulty sewer system, and funds to mitigate the effects of the river. Additionally, the tap water in the region is known for being contaminated as a result of pollution in Anacostia River — this fosters adverse health risks.

The Potomac River flows through urban D.C., the Georgetown neighborhood — which was ranked as one of the best places to live in D.C. by Niche — and the prestigious Georgetown University. The average income per capita in this region is more than $30,000 higher than the national average. The Georgetown neighborhood also happens to be 81.58% white.

It is clear that the disparity between each river’s water quality can be linked to the racial and economic composition of the neighborhoods through which they flow. The contrast in these rivers thus exemplifies environmental racism in the United States and reveals a blatant inequity in the heart of our nation’s capital.

Through Teen Lenses: What are your thoughts on environmental racism in the DMV? Are you aware of the stark contrast between the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and the disproportionate effects this reaps on people of color?

“As a DMV resident, I honestly didn’t know much about the disparity that existed between the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. I am a part of my school’s rowing team and we row on the Potomac which is always inhabited by other teams and maintained. I think that it is unacceptable that the Anacostia, on the other hand, experiences lower standards due to the minority and low-income population surrounding it. I am familiar with the idea of environmental racism, but I didn’t know it existed so close to home. I believe legislators and local officials must take action on this immediately.” Michelle Cheng, Senior at McLean High School, McLean, Virginia
“I find the stark contrast between the rivers to be unacceptable. In my opinion, environmental racism is a legitimate form of racism and yet, isn’t widely covered in today’s media. I believe in order to fully eliminate racism, we need to address all forms of it, with environmental racism being one of these forms.” Jason Samuels, Freshman at Georgia Tech, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
“I was not aware of the concept of environmental racism until now. I believe that it is such a pressing issue. However, most individuals don’t even know what it means. I think that an important reason as to why this has gone unaddressed for so long is that people are simply unaware of what environmental racism is. To solve this problem, I believe it starts with the education of legislators and our communities” Simrin Chowdhury, Freshman at McLean High School, McLean Virginia

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