Brentwood Trash Facility Fight Spans Two Decades

By Ashlee Clark
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The flies signal summer at Ruth J. Wilson's house.

They zip in through open doors and crawl into the refrigerator.

During last summer's invasion, Wilson gathered up some of the dead flies, sealed them in an envelope and mailed the package to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They identified the insects as humpback flies.

Wilson says they're invading her house on 13th Street NE because of the waste transfer center a few hundred feet away.

The USDA letter is among the piles of documents that chronicle two decades of complaints by Wilson and her neighbors since the trash transfer station opened in 1988. Their grievance centers on the presence and stench of the garbage processed and stored at the facility until it is taken to landfills, attracting flies, raccoons, possums and rats.

But officials of Square 3942 Limited Partnership, which owns the facility, say that they are observing regulations and that they improved the property when they bought it by cleaning up a vacant lot strewn with waste.

The dispute is approaching its second decade, but the large group that once rallied in opposition has dwindled to a small, frustrated band of neighbors led by Wilson.

Wilson's latest tactic, based on researching the Clean Air Act, is to contend that the transfer station violates air pollution standards. She has also charged that the placement of the transfer facility is an example of "environmental racism" against the working-class neighborhood, where mostly African Americans reside.

In her Brentwood neighborhood, off Rhode Island Avenue, Wilson, a former schoolteacher, is well known for her community activism. She has spoken out for literacy programs in D.C. public schools and helped organize a project to preserve the history of North Brentwood, the Prince George's community where she grew up.

But it is the fight over trash that riles her. Though she and her allies are sick of the garbage and the pests they say it brings, the daily grind has overtaken the activist spirit in some neighbors.

"They're not apathetic. They're just tired," Wilson said. "I'm not tired. I was born a fighter."

As Wilson devises new strategies to uproot the station, the transfer station owners face litigation with the city to keep the business open. The District contends that the transfer facility is not in compliance with permit regulations.

Wilson has kept all of her files on the fight over the years. She came up slowly one recent day from her basement -- Dante's Inferno, she calls it -- with armloads of manila envelopes and stacks of papers that document her war on the waste.

Wilson says the trash has affected her health. Her voice is coated with phlegm that she attributes to the transfer center, and she said she takes four medications for chest congestion and related problems.

Brian Schwalb, an attorney for the site's owners, said he doesn't know of any evidence that the station is detrimental to health. He said his clients came in and cleaned the area, which had been overrun with garbage, when they bought the property. He also said there are many other industrial operations in the area, which could be sources of contamination.

Tony Lash, one of the owners, said he runs an excellent, lawful facility.

What about the animals and pests that Wilson says overrun the neighborhood?

"Washington is full of possums and raccoons," Lash said. "It's not just my transfer station."

And Wilson's campaign to boot his site from the area?

She "has been jumping up and down and raising all kind of Cain" over the transfer station since a D.C. Superior Court judge threw out most of the complaints Wilson and her neighbors filed against Lash in a lawsuit, he said.

"So for Mrs. Wilson to just get on the phone and have nothing else to do but badger D.C. government all day, it's not fair," he said.

Wilson's closest ally through the years, Rosalee Collins, is now in a nursing home.

Congregants at the Israel Baptist Church, located near the transfer station, have also given up fighting after the station was continuously allowed to operate.

"I got to the point where I feel like we're fighting a helpless case," said the Rev. Morris Shearin Sr., church pastor.

On a recent Wednesday, Wilson invited two representatives from the mayor's office of community relations and services to a parking lot off Rhode Island Avenue that overlooks the trash facility. Moses A. Greene, a spokesman for the office, said information about the site will be passed to the city's Department of the Environment and other agencies.

Wilson said her campaign will continue until the facility is out of her neighborhood.

"I'm like Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King," she said. "When a job has got to be done, somebody has to go out there and fight it."

News researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company