Will Greens' Lawsuit Kill Poplar Point Soccer Stadium?
Score one for the environmentalists: The battle over whether to build a soccer stadium for D.C. United at Poplar Point will today move beyond the rhetorical and into the realm of legal quicksand, as a coalition of green groups serve legal notice on five governmental entities that they are about to be sued big time.
The Earth Conservation Corps, the Anacostia and Potomac Riverkeepers, the Sierra Club, D.C. ACORN and the Friends of the Earth have teamed with an arm of Georgetown University's law school to take the first step in a federal lawsuit against the National Park Service, the U.S. Navy, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Architect of the Capitol and the D.C. government to halt any move toward developing 40 acres of national parkland along the Anacostia River into the $2.5 billion retail, office and sports complex that the D.C. government envisions for the site.
"We're looking to use any method possible to preserve that land for people," says Glen O'Gilvie, president of the Earth Conservation Corps, a District-based group that advocates for the river and trains Washington youths to do environmental work.
"This action says 'Clean the parkland up now, before any development starts,'" says Erik Bluemel, a lawyer at Georgetown's Institute for Public Representation, which is handling the case for the green groups. As a result of today's action and the legal fight that will follow, "we're looking at a many-year time frame before any shovel could hit the ground."
That does not bode well for a soccer stadium, at least not in the timeframe that D.C. United has been talking about. Those talks with Maryland about alternate locations may pick up again, and soon.
Which would be just fine with the environmentalists, who want Poplar Point to remain entirely parkland. They also want the large portions of the park that are now closed to the public to be cleaned up and opened to all for recreational use. They are not filing a lawsuit today, but rather, as federal law requires, notifying the government of their intent to do so, triggering a 90-day period in which the officials must either clean up pollution on the site or otherwise respond to the allegations.
The green groups say the Poplar Point land was poisoned by a series of government users over the course of the past century, and federal studies have confirmed at least part of that story, though there are portions of the park that have not yet been studied.
The federal government agreed in 2006 to transfer the 110-acre park to the District for the purpose of boosting economic development in the Anacostia area, but the environmentalists say they are worried that allowing that transfer to move forward before a clean-up could saddle the city with enormous costs. "This suit would put the responsibility back where it belongs, with the federal polluters," Bluemel says.
For more than 20 years following World War II, the Navy had a Mine Research Laboratory at Poplar Point, with more than 90 buildings along the riverfront. Naval personnel were trained there on how to identify and disable underwater mines. "There could be unexploded munitions on the site," Bluemel says. In addition, a large dry cleaning facility that handled the cleaning of uniforms for personnel all around the Washington area was located at Poplar Point; dry cleaning facilities often leave behind a difficult legacy of toxic chemical residue.
The Park Service and U.S. Park Police now use some of those former Navy buildings.
"Any discussion about wanting this or that development on the site is really pointless pie-in-the-sky until we know how contaminated the site is," Bluemel says.
Toward that end, federal officials separately have begun the process of determining the environmental impact of any development at Poplar Point, and they had scheduled a community meeting for tonight, which is why the green groups set their lawsuit announcement for today. (The meeting is to be held at 7 p.m. at Thurgood Marshall Academy, 2427 Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, SE.)
The Anacostia River, generally listed as one of the ten most polluted rivers in the nation, is nonetheless home to more than 25 species of fish, and greens recently identified more than 35 species of birds that call Poplar Point home, including the bald eagle, hawks, falcons and owls.
The Architect of the Capitol used Poplar Point for many years as the site of its nursery, where flowers were grown for use in congressional offices. The D.C. government also had a nursery there, growing trees for use around the city.
In 2001, Congress set aside $2 million to pay for clean-up of the wetlands area of Poplar Point formerly used by the nursery. But the work never happened and everything has been frozen in place since talks began about transferring the land to the District.
The environmentalists' letter to the agencies they're planning to sue lists page after page of hazardous materials that are alleged to be all over the site, and the 23-page letter spells out how each agency contributed to the mess there--the Corps of Engineers by dredging the river and dumping the results on the shoreline, the Navy by using and disposing of a long list of dangerous chemicals at the site, the Architect of the Capitol by leaving pesticides, PCBs, asbestos and lead paint at its Poplar Point operations.
"Potentially the most dangerous sections of the site have not been tested," Bluemel says.
Environmental claims are a developer's worst nightmare. Whether or not the most dire claims of the greens are correct, the process of finding out can take many years and many millions of dollars. Whatever you think of the proposed Poplar Point development, this sounds like another strong reason for the District to reconsider the privately held land immediately adjacent to the park--a wide-open area hungry for exactly the kind of development the city wants to put on what should be a splendid riverfront park.
Join me today at noon for a debate on the conversion of Washington Catholic schools into public charter schools--the conversation is on Raw Fisher Radio at washingtonpost.com/rawfisherradio Tune in at noon or download the podcast anytime thereafter.
By Marc Fisher |
June 24, 2008; 8:15 AM ET
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