The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Environmental racism’ and the mysterious cars rusting in D.C. woods

‘They don’t have cars in the woods of Rock Creek Park,’ said advocate Nathan Harrington. ‘I don’t see why we should.’

Nathan Harrington, executive director of Ward 8 Woods Conservancy, checks out an abandoned Camaro Z28 in the woods off Pomeroy Road SE on Dec. 7 in Washington. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
6 min

In an earlier version of this article, a photo caption incorrectly said that an abandoned Jeep was located near Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. The Jeep was in woods near Malcolm X Elementary School. This article has been corrected.

Someone, sometime, had driven or shoved the Volkswagen Golf off the edge of a Southeast Washington parking lot into the scrappy stand of woods below.

On a wet day a few weeks before Christmas, Nathan Harrington stood in a pile of fallen leaves looking at the Golf, wondering why.

Like the other three cars Harrington has found decaying in Ward 8’s urban forests, the Golf’s backstory was unknown and, without a visible license plate or VIN number, probably unknowable. Maybe the car had been stolen and stripped for parts, he said, or maybe kids had been making mischief.

Whatever had brought the Golf to this miserable end, the car now lay on its side, rusting against a red oak amid a tangle of greenbrier — possibly leaking gasoline, oil or other toxins into the soil, he said.

“I would assume someone pushed it down,” Harrington said. “Probably by mistake. Maybe on purpose.”

As executive director of the nonprofit Ward 8 Woods Conservancy and a resident of nearby Congress Heights, Harrington gets grants to remove trash and invasive species from public land in the ward. With the help of volunteers, the group recently hauled away thousands of tires dumped in another ravine about 100 yards from the Golf. In January, it also discovered under Interstate 295 in Anacostia Park a “mountain of tires,” which U.S. Park Police said were being removed this week.

Removing the Golf and other abandoned cars, however, requires resources Harrington doesn’t have — a team of people hacking away at underbrush with machetes before calling in a truck with a winch or maybe a forklift. Unfortunately, he said, agencies that should protect this land far removed from the more pristine parks of Northwest D.C. are “missing in action.”

Advocates call this neglect of Black neighborhoods “environmental racism.”

“Little if any effort is made to actually use this land in a way beneficial to residents,” Harrington said. “It’s deliberate inaction on the part of the agencies that control that land.”

Which agency is responsible for removing abandoned vehicles or other illegally dumped refuse from a given strip of trees in Ward 8 is not always easy to determine.

The D.C. Department of Transportation’s forestry division manages property along its roadways. But the responsibility for dealing with illegal dumping falls to the Department of Public Works or D.C. police’s environmental crimes unit — unless the dumped-upon green space is on private land, where no city agency has jurisdiction.

Then there is land owned by the National Park Service, such as Anacostia’s Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, monitored by the U.S. Park Police.

A spokesperson for D.C. police said any vehicles abandoned on city land can be removed by the Department of Public Works, while vehicles on federal land are handled by federal authorities. The city’s transportation department referred questions to its public works department, which declined to comment.

It’s a bureaucratic tangle.

“Nobody really has eyes on these woods,” Harrington said. “I started Ward 8 Woods because I saw a void of stuff that needed to be done that wasn’t getting done.”

In a statement, NPS spokesman Sean P. McGinty said the Park Service “is aware of issues of illegal dumping in the national parks located in Ward 8 and have been in touch with several members of the community.”

The agency was not aware of any cars abandoned in Ward 8’s national parks, the statement said, but any there can be reported to U.S. Park Police for removal.

“Our staff … are constantly working to address illegal dumping throughout Ward 8 as quickly as we can,” the statement said.

Sometimes cars aren’t abandoned in the woods — the woods come to the cars.

Since World War II, Ward 8 has undergone extensive development, including the construction of the Suitland Parkway and Interstate 295. New roads have been cut into the hillsides overlooking the Anacostia River as other roads have been reclaimed by mini-forests. When shifting woodlands swallow a driveway or gas station, any vehicles abandoned there become part of the new landscape.

Harrington puzzled over one such artifact: what appeared to be most of a Camaro Z28 upended in a meager stand of trees between the Suitland Parkway and Pomeroy Road SE. What was left of the muscle car seemed too far from the Parkway to be accident debris. Harrington speculated that an access road here was abandoned as nearby condos were built in recent decades — and the Camaro was abandoned with the road.

Half of an upside-down car doesn’t fit into Harrington’s vision of bicycle paths and hiking trails through Ward 8. The ward currently has 1.4 miles of these trails, according to Harrington — compared with Rock Creek Park’s dozens of miles of trail.

“They don’t have cars in the woods of Rock Creek Park,” he said. “I don’t see why we should.”

Lacee A. Satcher, an assistant professor of sociology and environmental studies at Boston College, said that environmental racism is linked to “racial capitalism” — the idea that the economic value of a person is based on their race.

“Your neighborhood, because it is predominantly Black, has less value,” she said of this mind-set.

Environmental racism makes people believe that a neighborhood is not worthy of development or is appropriate only for industrial projects such as power plants or landfills, according to Satcher. Indeed, long before the Department of Homeland Security’s new headquarters opened on the Anacostia River’s east bank in 2013, it was home to the Blue Plains wastewater treatment plant, the Benning Road transfer station and the city’s impound lot.

To remedy this, Satcher said, Black residents need to be part of the decision-making to give them “access to the good stuff,” including green space.

“Parks don’t just get created randomly,” she said.

Ricky Jordan-Jones, a Southeast Washington native and a park steward with Ward 8 Woods who often tromps around, picking up trash, said he’s developed a sense for where the bad spots are. He said he’s found vehicles abandoned so long that trees have grown through them.

“You go where you kind of have an instinct: There’s going to be trash here,” he said.

For Jordan-Jones, 32, this is personal. He grew up on Stanton Road in Southeast — an area that’s been substantially remade by real estate developers.

Now that he is paid to clean up Ward 8’s few remaining green spaces, he wants to make sure the public can enjoy the fruits of his labor.

“Certain parts of the city they care about more, they spend more money,” he said. “I’m not out here for all this hard work to go to waste.”