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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 Tune in at noon or download the podcast anytime thereafter.

By Marc Fisher |  June 24, 2008; 8:15 AM ET
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It seems to me that this hurts the anti-development activists more than it helps. It only helps in the sense of delay, but the entire basis for the delay is the notion that this land was more or less a dumping ground, not the majestic open space the anti-development seem to think it is.

The simple reality is that the proposed development will preserve and clean up a lot more land, and having the presence of some brownfield development will be far more beneficial as a whole to the city and the east of the river community than preservation of the dump as-is. What's there now is not a park. It is land managed by the Park Service. Biiiiiig difference.

Posted by: Alex B. | June 24, 2008 8:51 AM


At least you've read enough about the situation to know that it is not Parkland vs Stadium, but Parkland vs Development. Are you now going to retract that silly piece you wrote awhile back when you used the stadium as your whipping boy? How about it? I think you owe it to your readers to clarify those mistakes you wrote.

Re: the environmentalists . . They do realize that there will be 80 acres called the "Preserve", a National Museum of the Environment, and many if not all the buildings on site will be certified "Green"

Posted by: delantero | June 24, 2008 9:16 AM

The federal government messed up Poplar Point; it is only fair that it should bear the cost of reclamation. As I understand it, yesterday's meeting was directed towards establishing criteria for the Economic Impact Assessment that must precede both reclamation and development. The $2 million Congress allotted to reclamation of Poplar Point seems absurdly low.

Posted by: Mike Licht | June 24, 2008 9:17 AM

Fisher and the Green Alliance,

Cry me a river about the lack of parks in Anacostia . . . but the truth is that Southeast has 8,000 acres of parkland more parkland than ANY other part of the City . . . minus perhaps Rock Creek, which is more of a scenic highway anyways

From the National Parks Service website . .


Welcome to National Capital Parks-East! We invite you to journey to parks Beyond the Capital of Washington, D.C. National Capital Parks-East is 13 park sites, parkways and statuary covering more than 8,000 acres of historic, cultural, and recreational parklands""

""Anacostia Park is operated by the United States National Park Service. It is one of Washington, D.C.'s largest and most important recreation areas, with over 1200 acres (4.9 km²) at multiple sites. ""

Posted by: delantero | June 24, 2008 9:23 AM

Save the Anacostia Three-Eyed Trout!

Posted by: M Street | June 24, 2008 9:24 AM

Stoppng the development Poplar Point isn't the work of enviornmentalists, but the work of stupid enviornmentalists.

Washington, DC is a growing city with lots of people. Those people can either live at Poplar Point, where they'll have plenty of mass transit options and a small carbon footprint, or they can live in the exurbs, where they'll have to drive into the city and pump carbon into the atmosphere.

Also, Fisher, you totally neglect to mention that turning Poplar Point into a park probably has enormous legal hurdles. The entire point of the federal land swap was to give the District a larger tax base. The District really shouldn't be in the business of misleading the feds, it's just not good business.

Posted by: sam | June 24, 2008 9:30 AM

Trifecta! If we take all of the LAWYERS, ENVIRONMENTALISTS, and HISTORIC PRESERVATIONISTS and actually dump them headfirst into the Anacostia River, then we will start making progress.

I am an "East of the River" (Ward 8) resident who can tell you that this area is drowning neglected, unusable parkland. Between Anacostia Park, Fort Dupont, Fort Stanton and all of the other overgrown fort circle "parks", we have hundreds of "green" acres...way more than enough. Indiana Jones couldn't cut his way through some of these jungles.

What we don't have is the modern (20th century) development and JOBS that the Poplar Point development would bring, something that the rest of the region can take for granted but is pretty important to us when our unemployment rate is close to 10% and the crime rate spiraling to 1990's levels.

I'm sick of these fossilized do-gooders pronoucing what is good for us. We have a lengthy public hearing process and that should be the guiding principle for whether or how this land gets developed...not lawyers who live in Bethesda and Chevy Chase.

Posted by: Christopher | June 24, 2008 9:38 AM

""Stoppng the development Poplar Point isn't the work of enviornmentalists, but the work of stupid enviornmentalists.""

LOL, how true.

I consider myself the former.

As a member, I'm calling the Sierra Club about their participation in this matter as we speak.

Posted by: delantero | June 24, 2008 9:43 AM


You miss the point (again). DC could lose out on the entire Poplar Point development. And the large economic impact (with or without the soccer stadium that you're fixated on) it would have in the 8th Ward (you know that Ward that get's neglected...while folks not from the 8th Ward get to decide their destiny).

Posted by: Big Picture | June 24, 2008 9:46 AM

If these greeny groups really cared they ought to be out on the MANY days where there are public clean ups of the park.

You can actually clean up the park if you set foot in the park, you can't from some lawyer's office.

Posted by: Pot/Kettle | June 24, 2008 9:47 AM

Interesting that Marc is advocating the "privately held land" be used over land the government already owns. Did Marc do a cost/benefit analysis to determine what costs more - cleaning the land they already own or paying for the privately held land and any cleanup THAT property will require?

My guess is no. I would also like to find out who owns that land and who's pocket Marc calling to be filled with our tax dollars. And since we are on the subject of tax dollars - developing Poplar Point will add to the tax base. Leaving Poplar Point as it is will not.

Posted by: DC Voter | June 24, 2008 9:51 AM

Well, Fisher
you just got
your wish-er.

Posted by: Pompous Magnus | June 24, 2008 9:59 AM

Very naive comment or slick developer talk:

"Those people can either live at Poplar Point, where they'll have plenty of mass transit options and a small carbon footprint, or they can live in the exurbs, where they'll have to drive into the city..."
With no region-wide coordination of development, They will build it here AND build the distant suburbs. Yeah! A parking lot from sea to shining sea!
Folks, fight for whatever green space you can...Our lives depend on it...let's talk loss of impervious cover and water and air quality.

Posted by: build here AND there | June 24, 2008 10:09 AM

Is the large swath of green in the Clark development pictures not the right shade?

Posted by: Using Eyes | June 24, 2008 11:20 AM

This pretty much guarantees that all funds to clean up and 'develop' Poplar Point will be public tax dollars.

Pretty much ensuring absolutely nothing happens for the foreseeable future, and a toxic, littered field of weeds lives on.

Posted by: JkR | June 24, 2008 12:21 PM

Did you read this part? "allowing that transfer to move forward before a clean-up could saddle the city with enormous costs."

DC can't afford to clean up Fed brownfields.

Posted by: ocassiuso | June 24, 2008 12:29 PM

"They will build it here AND build the distant suburbs. Yeah! A parking lot from sea to shining sea!"

Not if you short-sightedly block development in urban core areas.

If you do that, you will have no one to blame but yourself for exurban sprawl.

As for 'parking lot from sea to shining sea', that very statement makes your entire argument lose all credibility.

As others have pointed out, SE DC has THOUSANDS of acres of preserved parkland already. That's far more than most urban areas.

Posted by: Hillman | June 24, 2008 1:09 PM

It's possible/likey that the cost to clean up would be less than the money to help fund a stadium's infrastructure costs.....

Posted by: Logical | June 24, 2008 2:13 PM

You've got to learn to leave the soccer crazies alone.

The stadium is as good as dead, so the question isn't whether it's going to be soccer stadium or park. It's whether it's going to be toxic waste dump versus condos for DINKs. There's no winning outcome for the environment involved either way.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 24, 2008 5:48 PM

We may be "soccer crazies", but we still know that Poplar Point will never become a pristine riverfront park, enjoyed by residents of Anacostia and the rest of DC.

Why is that?

Because there's NO MONEY IN IT.

If Poplar Point doesn't become a development anchored by a Soccer Stadium, it'll likely become another soul-less office park with no identity, and no reason to draw visitors from outside the immediate area.

If idiots like the aforementioned environMENTALists have their way, it'll remain as it currently is: A littered wasteland along a highly polluted river. Without development, there will be no impetus to clean the land and river.

I also don't recall seeing ANY of the mentioned environmental groups OR "Mister" Fisher at any of the cleanups organized by the Screaming Eagles, United for DC, or any other group for that matter...

Put your money where your mouth is you self-righteous douchebag.

Posted by: AlecW81 | June 25, 2008 12:47 AM

"It's whether it's going to be toxic waste dump versus condos for DINKs."

What about a park? If all these environmental groups are involved, then I think at some point, they will have to commit to really clean it up. I am not being sarcastic or facetious. I will volunteer. Where do I sign up?

Posted by: Ups | June 25, 2008 8:04 AM

Maybe they could turn it into a shooting range?

Posted by: Stick | June 25, 2008 8:37 AM

Popping off the pimps, dealers and druggies as they walk back and forth like an arcade game.

Posted by: Stick | June 25, 2008 8:42 AM

Turning Poplar Point into a Park would completely negate the reason it was transferred BACK to the City from the Federal Government.

The land was transferred so DC could make money. A park at Poplar Point with zero development = zero dollars.

Posted by: AlecW81 | June 25, 2008 10:51 AM


What will you write about if there is no soccer stadium in DC? This along with sidewalk ping-pong has become a reliable staple in your rotation.

Maybe you could generate another controversy about why there are no ping pong tables in the new poplar point development.

Posted by: Tom | June 25, 2008 2:58 PM

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