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Taking Trash Out of the Potomac

Some would say there are a lot of trashy commitments made in Washington, D.C., but this one may just be the dirtiest (and, inversely, potentially cleanest) yet.

At an event last week in the World Bank building, around 40 officials from the Washington metropolitan area added their signatures to the Potomac River Watershed Trash Treaty, thus obliging themselves to support the goal of creating a trash-free Potomac by 2013.

“In 2013 we want out of the trash business,” said Tracy Bowen, executive director of the Alice Ferguson Foundation, to attendees of the second Trash Summit, held June 14. “We want out of organizing these cleanups.”

For the past 19 years, the foundation has been organizing waste removal operations throughout the Potomac River Watershed — which encompasses land in Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and D.C.

“Our objective, and it is an ambitious objective, is to put that effort out of business by 2013,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.). When asked earlier if he felt the effort was truly possible, he responded: “It isn’t possible to get anything done if you don’t set an ambitious goal.” He added, “At the federal level we can do a number of things,” noting the government had provided some money to study trash-reduction options such as recycling and funding storm water management systems in Maryland.

Van Hollen wasn’t the only one to offer a tentative response to the goal’s feasibility. At one point, when the crowd was asked who all thought the endeavor was possible, roughly 30 percent raised their hands. However, on subsequent questioning throughout the day-long event, the number increased.

And many speakers affirmed a clean Potomac was integral not only to the health of that river but also the Chesapeake Bay and the world’s water system as a whole.

“The majority of what we find in the ocean does start upstream,” said Sylvia Earle, a former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a keynote address. “Whatever we do to any of it, we do to all of it … it is alive.”

Earle went on to recount a story of discovering a soda can glistening in the lights of her submarine during a 1,000-foot dive off the coast of California.

“We have deliberately — in our time — done things to the water of the world that are new on the water’s balance sheet,” she said.

But while environmentalism may be in vogue on Capitol Hill these days, promoters of trash cleanup demurred that their issue has taken a backseat to the decidedly sexier (and more profitable) environmental issues such as alternative energy.

“I think we are dealing with what I perceive as a bottom feeder of issues,” Bowen said.

That sentiment might explain why, after numerous roundtable discussions, many groups reported back with new proposals to increase awareness of trash issues on the state, local and federal levels.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who was one of the early signatories to the trash treaty, has helped secure funding for many of the trash-reduction efforts, including education initiatives.

“Working together we have made, and can continue to make, a positive difference to preserve and protect the Watershed, but we are going to need to step up our efforts even more to truly undue the damage of this significant water way,” Hoyer wrote in an e-mail. “At the federal level we must do our part to focus efforts and dollars on clean-up initiatives and facilitate the crucial federal-local partnerships.”

Beyond education, the summiteers also proposed stepping up enforcement against trash dumpers as well as providing incentives for individuals and businesses to divert waste to recycling efforts.

Bowen said she expected more committees to continue to meet throughout the year and further develop the ideas brought up during the summit.

“This is all sort of organically evolving,” she said.

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