The snow that paralyzed Washington doesn't look so high and mighty now. Truth be told, it looks a bit pathetic.
Piled in jagged 20-foot drifts in a parking lot near the southern end of the South Capitol Street Bridge, this is not the fairy tale snow that fell like confectioners' sugar last weekend. This is dirty snow, scraped from District streets and storm drains and deposited by a nearly endless procession of dump trucks. It bears a defeated look as it melts in the sun.
Even so, Tom Liddell isn't turning his back on it. Liddell, deputy chief of trash collection for the Department of Public Works, was up before dawn yesterday directing a ragtag fleet of dump trucks into the lot, the final resting place for recalcitrant snow, the stuff that can't simply be pushed to the side of the road.
"The guys were telling me, 'We got plenty o' room,' " said Liddell, 50. His response: "I'm telling you, I was here in '96. I need all the room I can get."
With each truckload, the gray pile that Liddell was watching grew a little bigger. A single yellow front-end loader was moving back and forth, compacting the pile a bit. It was not enough. Liddell called for three more.
Only the biggest snowstorms require area road crews to do anything more than shove snow aside and wait for solar energy to make it disappear. The last time snow was dumped in the South Capitol lot was in 1996. Parking lots at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium and Carter Barron Amphitheatre also became snow depositories that year, Liddell said. This year, the city is using a second, smaller dump site near D.C. General Hospital.
Some cities dump snow directly into rivers: The District did in 1996, and avalanches have been pouring into Philadelphia's Schuylkill this week.
When it melts, the snow in the South Capitol lot will end up in the nearby Anacostia -- so will any ice-melting chemicals in it. But the Environmental Protection Agency doesn't complain during snow emergencies. EPA officials say the soil will filter out some of the chemicals before the runoff makes it to the river.
Crews from the Maryland State Highway Administration are dumping extra snow into quarries and wooded areas along the side of the road, said spokeswoman Sandra Dobson. The Virginia Department of Transportation isn't hauling snow yet. "And we hope not to haul at all," said VDOT spokeswoman Joan Morris. "It is inefficient. It is time-consuming."
But it's kind of cool, too, a mechanized ballet. A convoy of five trucks turned into the parking lot, and Liddell -- with the aplomb of a runway worker directing jumbo jets -- pointed them to different spots along the icy pile. There was a snort of air brakes followed by a groan as the truck beds rose to disgorge their loads. Percussive clangs crack the air as the heavy rear gates slam shut after the snow has poured out.
As city streets slowly empty of snow, Liddell is overseeing the creation of an other-worldly landscape, a frozen tableau of lumpy mounds heaved up in fanciful formations that rise and fall for hundreds of feet.
The snow is somewhat worse for wear, peppered with bits of dirt and asphalt and blackened with exhaust. It is full of urban detritus that has been scooped up with it: an Utz salt and vinegar potato chip bag; a GE halogen headlamp, still in its box; a crushed plastic Coke bottle; a squashed orange traffic cone. (Such litter is another reason many cities no longer dump into rivers.)
This vacant lot is usually the haunt of tour buses, which park there after dropping passengers at attractions on the Mall. A few tour buses had staked a claim when Liddell first showed up, on Wednesday. "You guys gotta go," he told them. "You gotta go today."
The buses made way for the snow and for the dump trucks carrying it. There were city-owned trucks and federal trucks and so many trucks operated by contractors that it looked like a page had been ripped from the phone book: AMA Trucking of Forestville, E. Stanley Trucking, Peachtree Trucking, White's Trucking, R.S. Thomas Hauling.
A rusty white truck pulled up, dumped its load and moved away.
"That's a real dinosaur," Liddell said. "They're grabbing everything they can to move some snow."
When will they stop dumping in the lot? "When it's done," Liddell said.
As for the pile, slowly melting into a brown river that trickles into a drain, Liddell said some of it probably will be there when spring arrives.