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D.C.’s Kingman Island, once a ‘pile of dredge waste,’ is reborn

Posted on March 11, 2024

On Kingman Island, a 40-acre spit of land in the Anacostia River, environmental protection specialist Lee Cain stands in front of a pile of wooden debris. It’s a damp February day, and a strangely familiar chemical smell hangs in the air. For those of a certain generation, the smell conjures up the memory of … telephone poles?

“Creosote,” confirms Cain, who works for the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE). The chemical, a wood preservative and known carcinogen, was once routinely applied to telephone and electric poles to lengthen their useful life. At some point lost to history, an unknown party carted a pile of these poles to Kingman Island and left them there to rot. (Or, given that creosote is a preservative, not rot.)

Now, many of the poles are gone. In February, the island was cleared of debris — some of it toxic — that had accumulated over decades. The cleanup was part of a planned restoration of the island announced by Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) in 2018, when the island was designated D.C.’s first conservation area.

This was no small undertaking. Not long after dawn on Feb. 16, a worker behind the wheel of a claw excavator attacked piles of what turned out to be at least 100 poles, which would be carted away by a waiting semi.

Elsewhere on the island, remediators removed one dump truck’s worth of concrete, a truckload of metal and still another load of garden-variety trash. All this mess would be sorted and sent to different waste centers to responsibly dispose of the material, according to Cain.

For the island, it’s been a long journey up from — quite literally — the bottom.

Kingman was born in 1916 during an Army Corps of Engineers dredging project to clear out malaria-causing mosquitoes. Decades later, plans to turn its shores into a beach or stadium parking came to naught. Instead, the District dumped yard waste there, and unhoused people set up makeshift homes.

As part of a rehabilitation project, crews removed large debris items from Kingman Island in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 16.

Lora Nunn is a founder of Friends of Kingman and Heritage Islands, a community group that’s spearheaded efforts to improve Kingman and its smaller, six-acre neighbor. For Nunn, February’s remediation was a major event.

“I’ve been waiting for years for this specific cleanup,” she said.

Nunn said that when she first walked the island about a decade ago, she wasn’t even sure she was on an island. The shoreline was overgrown with invasive bush honeysuckle, blocking river views and preventing native species from growing.

Since then, the Friends have taken on improvement projects — simple things like painting fences on the island with rainbows for Pride Month or installing mile markers on trails. In a once-abandoned place with no full-time staff, near a dilapidated stadium whose fate is uncertain, anything that improves accessibility is important, according to Nunn.

“One of my goals is to make it as welcoming as possible to as many people as possible,” she said.

From 1993: Modern Robinson Crusoe finds refuge on Kingman Island

Christopher E. Williams, president and CEO of the nonprofit Anacostia Watershed Society, said in an email that it’s been a “long, strange trip for Kingman Island” — land that was once “a pile of dredge waste, then a man-made island used primarily as a dumping ground.”

“Now it’s key to efforts to recover the Anacostia River, restoring a healthy freshwater and forest ecosystem to the heart of the city,” he said.

Slowly, Kingman is improving — and many District residents are coming. DOEE Director Richard Jackson said Kingman brings in about 80,000 visitors per year.

Walking the wooden bridges that connect the island to RFK Stadium’s deserted Parking Lot 6, Cain said this place already serves as a place of refuge from busy city life. With further investment, it can be even more.

“As soon as I walk over these bridges, I feel better,” Cain said. “I think a lot of people experience that.”

There’s a lot to do before Kingman can reach its full potential, according to Jackson. Removing invasive species and replanting with native ones to develop a more solid shoreline. Improving the quality of the trails. Making sure the footbridges can accommodate increased traffic.

Once the island improves, Jackson said, Kingman can become D.C.’s own outdoor laboratory in a sea of federal land, hosting educational and social events like an annual bluegrass festival that started in 2009 and the long-delayed Anacostia River Swim — jettisoned last summer because of an untimely sewage overflow.

As Jackson put it, “We can do what we want with it.”

“The first time a person goes over there, they are always going to return,” he said.

Large pieces of debris, including toxic waste, were removed from Kingman Island in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 16.


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