Ruth J. Wilson suffers from asthma and has twice had pneumonia that she blames squarely on where she lives -- a street less than 200 feet from a trash transfer station where garbage trucks emit fumes, rodents run rampant and a foul odor hangs thick in the air on hot days.
For two decades, Wilson and other activists in Brentwood have asked the District to close the trash transfer station at 1220 W St. NE. She toured the area with Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) in early 1999 to brief the mayor, then newly elected, on the pitfalls of living close to the transfer station. She and other residents are now plaintiffs in a lawsuit charging that the station is a health hazard and a neighborhood nuisance.
"Why do we have to smell it?" she asked. "How long do they think we can live here? It's killing us."
In October, city officials pledged to crack down on the city's five private trash transfer stations in the District and close facilities that failed to comply with city laws. Garbage is stored in the stations until it can be transported to landfills outside the city.
To address problems at the Brentwood station, city officials signed an agreement that required Browning-Ferris Industries, the trash hauler that held the lease for the station, to cease its operation by Dec. 31. Brentwood residents considered the problem solved.
But within a week, an owner of the trash site, Wilton Lash, reopened the transfer station, a move not anticipated by city officials.
Brian Schwalb, an attorney for the site's owners, said that the land was zoned for a transfer station and that his clients removed a 60-foot mountain of trash from the property after purchasing it in 1988. The city changed the regulations after the facility was built, he said.
"It's terribly unfair to tell people who have invested time and money in a critical aspect of our city's infrastructure that the rules are all of sudden different from what they used to be," Schwalb said.
City Administrator Robert C. Bobb said he was empathetic when he toured the community in February with council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), whose ward has three transfer stations.
"I absolutely thought it was a nuisance in the neighborhood," Bobb said. "It doesn't belong because it's a trash transfer station right across the street from a residential community."
But Bobb acknowledged that court challenges have allowed the transfer station to remain open.
The residents, in a lawsuit filed by the NAACP on their behalf, claim that the transfer station operation violates city law, poses a health hazard and is a nuisance to the neighborhood. A D.C. Superior Court judge threw out most of the complaints; the issues that remain relate to noise and odor.
Meanwhile, trash trucks continue to rumble through Brentwood. Neighbors say that rats, opossums and raccoons race through their yards day and night and that the stench from the station is sometimes unbearable.
Residents also say the city isn't monitoring the station, which remains open some weekends and late evenings after the required closing time. At 8:30 p.m. one recent Friday, doors to the station's warehouse were open, and workers using front-end loaders piled garbage onto a two-story-high mound.
The Rev. Morris Shearin Sr., pastor of Israel Baptist Church, a few blocks from the station, said: "The church has mice and rats running around here. Nobody, even the mayor, seems to be able to get this place out of this community."
Shearin said he felt that an offer extended last year by the transfer station owners to donate $100,000 to buy computers for neighborhood schools was an attempt "to buy" the community's support. The offer expired in March.
John Ray, a former council member who also is an attorney for Lash, said the proposed donation was the site owners' effort to be good neighbors. He denied that they were trying to buy support.
"No one wants a transfer station," Ray said. "That's just the way life is. But [Wilton] Lash has been willing to do all he can to make this place as conducive as he possibly can to be in the community."
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large), who heads the council committee that oversees the Department of Public Works, said she was confident that city officials had the authority to close it but later learned of the legal quagmire.
"Between agreements that mean nothing and the tie-ups in the courts, nothing happens," Schwartz said. "Meanwhile, the residents have to live with this abomination."
A 1999 city law requires transfer stations to sit 50 feet back from their own property lines and have a 500-foot buffer from any neighboring property line to protect public health and safety. But a D.C. Superior Court judge has called the setback requirement "bogus," noting that the regulation applies to private transfer stations but not to city-operated ones, according to court documents.
"The city cannot put rules in that apply to private companies and not themselves," Ray said. "They can't win this case."
Dorn C. McGrath Jr., a retired George Washington University professor and Northwest Washington resident, headed a task force that criticized the city's failure to properly regulate transfer centers. He said the conditions in Brentwood are deplorable.
"It's going to get worse in the summer when things get really hot," he said.