Historic DC Cemetery Doubles as Pollution-Absorbing Sponge

This story is part of Treehugger's news archive. Learn more about our news archiving process or read our latest news.
Mt. Olivet Cemetery, DC
Encompassing 85 acres, Mount Olivet Cemetery is Washington, D.C.'s oldest and largest Catholic cemetery. It was also the first in the capital to be racially integrated. (Photo: Tim Evanson/flickr)

North American cemeteries named after Mount Olivet — the Mount of Olives, an ancient and revered hill flanking East Jerusalem — are innumerable. Monument-stuffed Mount Olivet Cemetery in Frederick, Maryland, is the final resting place of Francis Scott Key. Notable burials at Chicago's Mount Olivet include Mrs. Catherine O'Leary (but not her infamous cow) and, for a brief spell in the late 1940s, Al Capone. Detroit's Mount Olivet Cemetery is the city's largest while its counterpart in Nashville, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a who's who of prominent, long-gone Tennesseans.

Yet none of these cemeteries or countless others possess the same historical heft as Washington D.C.'s Mount Olivet Cemetery, one of the first racially integrated burial grounds in the city. Spread out over 85 tranquil acres, Mount Olivet was established in 1858 as a capital-area riff on Mount Auburn Cemetery, the influential cemetery-cum-arboretum outside of Boston that was the first cemetery in America to more closely resemble an immaculately landscaped park than a dour church-adjacent graveyard. Championing outdoor recreation and inclusionary interments from the get-go, Mount Olivet is home to an eclectic mix of eternal residents: ambassadors, justices, senators, postmasters general and Lincoln assassination conspirators.

Mount Olivet's most game-changing moment, however, might be one that's happening now: a science-driven, first-of-its kind environmental initiative that aims to curb the amount of pollution being swept into Chesapeake Bay.

By revamping sections of the 85-acre property to better absorb polluted rainwater that would otherwise flow from its paved roads and walkways into a nearby tributary of the Anacostia River and, eventually, the bay, this ambitious — but non-disruptive — green infrastructure project essentially transforms Mount Olivet Cemetery into a sponge. And a sacred sponge at that.

Adding a somewhat unexpected layer to the Nature Conservancy-led undertaking is the fact that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington owns and maintains the 160-year-old cemetery and has been closely involved with the project's concept and execution. This marks the first time the conservancy has partnered with the Catholic Church. It's also likely marks the first time that a man of the cloth — in this event, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, D.C. — has blessed an urban stormwater retention project. (The project has received glowing coverage from publications ranging from Stormwater Solutions to the Catholic Standard.)

"Our cemeteries are considered sacred ground because it is here that we bury our dead in the hope of the resurrection," said Cardinal Wuerl at a May 7 dedication ceremony. "But cemeteries also serve the living. We take particular care of the grounds, so that those who come to visit, to remember and to pray for their dead do so in beautiful, peaceful, serene surroundings."

At the dedication, Wuerl praised the project as an "an actual, practical example" of Pope Francis' environmental encyclical being carried out. He then sprinkled a pollutant-absorbing rain garden with holy water.

Swapping grey for green

Perched on a hillside in Northeast D.C.'s Ivy City neighborhood opposite the National Arboretum and, beyond that, the Anacostia River, Mount Olivet Cemetery — D.C.'s oldest and largest Catholic cemetery — is as peaceful and bucolic as a major urban cemetery can get.

But this doesn't mean the cemetery is all wide expanses of grass, trees and park-like features. Roughly 10 acres of impervious surfaces can be found throughout the cemetery including the aforementioned network of winding paved roads and walkways that lace the cemetery grounds.

During heavy rain events, stormwater cascades down these problematic asphalt surfaces — collecting accumulated pollutants, bacteria, litter and assorted gunk as it goes — and straight into Hickory Run, a tributary of the Anacostia. Although notoriously polluted, the river is currently on the rebound thanks to extensive clean-up and pollution control efforts.

Three billion gallons of storm runoff and raw sewage enter rivers in and around the nation's capital every year. Per the conservancy, this is the fastest growing source of water pollution not just in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed —covering 64,000 square miles, it's the largest watershed on North America's Atlantic seaboard — but in freshwater bodies worldwide.

And so, with the aid of the Nature Conservancy, a slice of Mount Olivet Cemetery's "grey" infrastructure has been turned green. Infrequently used access roads were narrowed or replaced altogether with grass, trees, flower beds, rain gardens and bio-retention cells specifically designed to capture and filter polluted runoff. In addition to slowing and scrubbing stormwater before it enters local waterways, the addition of these natural features provide much-needed new habitat to urban wildlife.

Writes Nature Conservancy Natural Conservancy president and CEO Mark Tercek in a blog post profiling the singular project:

These innovations do it all: capture the stormwater, slow down runoff, clean it up, cool it down, and slowly release it back into the river over time, mimicking natural processes. The result is cleaner rivers all around us. What's more, green infrastructure typically costs less than gray infrastructure and provides a host of immediate co-benefits for free, like greening a neighborhood, reducing urban heat islands, cleaning the air, restoring nutrients to the soil, and creating local green jobs.

As reported by the Bay Journal, the project's first phase, which has so far involved reducing 18,000 square feet of impervious surfaces within the cemetery, can accommodate up to 1.7 inches of rainwater in a 24-hour period.

A forever fix at a place of eternal rest

The Nature Conservancy is also working alongside the archdiocese to create a stormwater-filtering commemorative garden that honors enslaved Americans who were interred at Mount Olivet Cemetery. "The garden's design will provide reflective spaces for people and habitat for pollinators, using the power of nature to connect people with history," writes Tercek. "The garden will also host community educational events to share the story of those who were enslaved, disenfranchised, and denied the opportunity to have grave markers."

And as discordant as taking on such an ambitious project in such a hallowed place may have potentially been, the project moved forward with minimal disruption.

"Because it was in a cemetery, we also wanted to make sure that none of the burial sites were disturbed," Chieko Noguchi, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Washington, explains to Next City. "And, it was also very important to us that any of the construction work would happen around any already-scheduled burials, and we didn't want it to impede with anyone coming to visit their loved ones in the cemetery."

As Next City points out, Mount Olivet is a "sunset" cemetery, which means it is nearing full capacity and will soon halt new interments. While this could spell bad news for future generations who might want to secure a spot in the historic burial grounds, it's good news from a conservation standpoint, particularly as it pertains to the reduction of impervious surfaces. Essentially, this means that no part of the cemetery could potentially be sold to developers who, in turn, might turn the verdant landscape into, for example, a parking lot. The whole property is sanctified, off-limits forever and always.

"We know whatever we do there will be there for a very long time and will have a huge benefit for our rivers in D.C.," Kahlil Kettering, director of Urban Conservation at the Nature Conservancy, tells Next City.

Road at Mt. Olivet Cemetery, DC
Impervious surfaces are inevitable at cemeteries. At Mount Olivet in Northeast D.C., redundant roads are giving way to grass, trees and pollutant-absorbing rain gardens. (Photo: Tim Evanson/flickr)

Runoff, runoff go away

It's true that the Archdiocese of Washington — largely motivated by the Pope's resounding call to honor and protect the natural world — embarked on the project at Mount Olivet Cemetery to help make imperiled waterways in the D.C. area cleaner and greener.

It's not just all for the good of Mother Nature, however.

The stormwater retention initiative is also financially advantageous to the Catholic Church — the archdiocese can now reduce its annual runoff bills simply because there are fewer impervious surfaces. In 2017, that bill ran $140,000. In 2018, the fee rose to $25.18 charged for every 1,000 square feet of impervious surface area according to the Bay Journal.

"We were wondering, ‘How could we do something that would be good for the environment and good for our water bill?'" Cheryl Guidry Tyiska, manager of Mount Olivet and St. Mary's cemeteries tells the Bay Journal. "Someone connected us to The Nature Conservancy."

The runoff fees, administered by the D.C. Department of Energy & Environment (DOEE) and collected to help fund federally mandated clean-up projects in the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, have proven to be a difficult pill for cemeteries and other faith-based institutions to swallow.

"We're maintaining all this beautiful green space, and there's this blind-eyed approach to the impervious area charge," laments John Spalding, president of the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., to the Bay Journal. "It's not like we're a developer that has all this revenue coming in. This is all on donations."

As the Washington Post has reported, Rock Creek Cemetery, the oldest burial ground in all of D.C., has also found itself in a financial bind. The cemetery's 2016 water bill reached nearly $200,000, a dramatic jump from the $3,500 fee imposed in 2008.

"It's really dire," Cecily Thorne, director of operations at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Rock Creek Parish, told the Post. "We're at a breaking point. We want our city to have clean water, but we want to see it done in a way that's equitable."

Anacostia River
Once deemed polluted beyond repair, the Anacostia River has experienced a rebound in recent years. Still, pollutants carried into the river by urban runoff remains an issue. (Photo: Tim Evanson/flickr)

Good karma, even better credit

While rain gardens and other new green infrastructure won't cause Mount Olivet Cemetery's annual runoff fee to drop dramatically, the archdiocese is enjoying a modest dip of around 4 percent.

The project has also enabled the cemetery to generate credits through the DOEE's stormwater retention credit (SRC) program, which, in part, can be sold as a new revenue stream. It's this revenue stream — not money taken from archdiocese coffers — that will pay for the green infrastructure overhaul at Mount Olivet. The Bay Journal explains the nuts and bolts of how the innovative program works — and how the archdiocese will benefit from it:

Stormwater regulations in the District require developers to either retain a certain amount of runoff on-site or purchase pollution-reduction credits from projects that absorb more than their share of stormwater elsewhere. [In this case, Mount Olivet Cemetery]. That gives developers flexibility in meeting their stormwater control requirements, and it allows for the private financing of water quality projects in less affluent pockets of the city, such as those near the Anacostia. In 2016, the conservation investing arm of the Conservancy partnered with an asset management firm to form District Stormwater LLC to finance projects that reduce stormwater runoff and generate credits for the trading program. An initial $1.7-million investment came from Prudential Financial, all of which will be used on work at Mount Olivet.

Kettering of the Nature Conservancy hails the SRC market as being "great because it provides an opportunity to bring in new sources of funding to do conservation projects and also show that you can use private equity [to finance] conservation outcomes. It's a new way to bring different partners to the table," he tells Next City.

Moving forward, there's hope that other cemeteries, Catholic or not, will follow in the Washington Archdiocese's footsteps. The project at Mount Olivet, after all, is a highly replicable one.

As Spalding relays to the Bay Journal, his previous approach to cemetery upkeep was centered mostly on buildings and gravestones, not necessarily redundant paved surfaces. But since teaming with the Nature Conservancy, his view has broadened.

"We have to keep up these buildings. But we see the lands as part of that mission, too, now that we're more informed about the impact that we were having with stormwater runoff," he says. "We all have the same mindset — that we want to be good stewards of our properties."