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Trash-Free Potomac by 2013?

Second annual Potomac Watershed Trash Summit sees more legislators join effort.

The Potomac Watershed Trash Summit conducted its second annual meeting in Washington, D.C. last month, and 64 elected officials throughout the watershed region have now committed to the goal of making the region trash-free by 2013.

The summit, attended this year by some 300 business, community and political leaders, is hosted by the Alice Ferguson Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization based in Accokeek, Md. The foundation has organized large-scale, volunteer-led trash clean-ups throughout the watershed for 19 years now, said Alice Ferguson spokesman Richard Marx, "and the trash problem is not getting better." Last year’s clean-up saw 237 tons of trash pulled from the areas around the watershed’s lakes and streams.

Marx said the foundation set 2013 as its goal because the year would mark its 25th annual clean-up. "What we’d like to do, in an ideal world, is to not have another clean-up," he said.

This year, 41 elected officials added their signatures to the Potomac River Watershed Trash Treaty, which had been drafted for the first summit. It was the first time that representatives from Pennsylvania signed on. Using broad language, the treaty recognizes the severity of the trash problem and pledges to address the issue through "regional strategies" for reducing trash and increasing recycling and through raising public awareness.

"They’re not agreeing to anything specific. They’re agreeing to acknowledge the problem," said Marx. He said the point of the summit and the treaty is to spur local governments from across the region to communicate with each other and work on the problem together through education and legislation. To that end, seven panels were formed at the summit to discuss different approaches, and all participants will be invited back on a weekly basis for the next seven weeks to hear from each panel, Marx said.

AS FOR THE 2013 deadline Marx said "We were ambitious on the time frame, but we think it can be done."

Del. David Bulova (D-37), who is one of the treaty’s signers and who works on environmental issues both politically and professionally, said trash poses a problem both to wildlife and to the community. For example, he said, animals often die from eating too many plastics. Also, a littered landscape hurts community pride.

On the legislation front, Bulova noted that Virginia increased the fine for dumping into state waters from $100 to $1,000 this year. But he said education efforts could prove more valuable. Many people, he said, do not even realize that storm drains channel water into nearby streams. "A lot of people think it goes to a treatment plant," he said.

Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-At-large), who is one of the treaty’s founding signers, said efforts in Fairfax County would focus primarily on raising awareness. Once people understand the problem, "our experience here is that they’re only too happy to help," said Connolly. Fifty Boy Scout teams have been assembled to place "Do not dump" signs — in English and Spanish — on storm drains around the county, he said.

Connolly also noted that studies are being conducted on the county’s 30 tributary watersheds to determine the best ways to clean up each of them. In terms of legislation, he pointed out that buffer zones separating waterways from construction were recently expanded in the county.

Connolly acknowledged that most legislators, at the county, state and federal levels, had not yet signed onto the treaty but he said this was primarily because the Alice Ferguson Foundation was focused on targeting the leader of each local jurisdiction, "because that’s where the implementations will take place." He noted that 16 of the 19 jurisdictions in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments were represented on the treaty. "The big ones are all there," he said.