So, D.C., you can legalize marijuana, but you can’t pick up the trash?
That was the sentiment that poured into city hall this week as frustration reached a tipping point over overflowing garbage bins and ice-crusted piles of rubbish blocking alleys in residential neighborhoods.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Friday that she’d heard enough and had ordered an unprecedented “blitz” to clear the backlog. Her director of public works, William Howland, called the situation a garbage “emergency” — some 200 tons of uncollected refuse — unlike anything the city had grappled with since the “Snowmageddon” storm of 2010.
Residents, he added, did not understand how only a few piddling snowstorms had wrought similar havoc this year.
“Snowmageddon was about the same thing . . . in terms of difficulty,” Howland said. “The difference is, when you see three feet of snow on the ground, people kind of understand it. When there’s just a little bit of ice, people don’t quite appreciate it.”
Repeated, if minor, snowstorms have come and gone over more than two weeks without temperatures warming up enough to melt accumulating snow in the shaded alleys where most D.C. garbage is picked up, according to Howland and the leaders of the unions that represent trash collectors. With barely thawing days and refreezing many nights, they said, lots of alleys across the District became skating rinks that few garbage truck drivers dared navigate.
Last week’s back-to-back combination of a federal holiday and a weekday morning snow all but halted trash collection in the nation’s capital.
Many residents who had been looking forward to getting overflowing trash bins cleared out this week were then stymied by icy conditions that prompted trash collectors to abandon pickups again. Late Thursday, after another light morning snowfall led to scattered missed pickups, complaints reached a fever pitch.
In Columbia Heights, Jamie Zimmerman took to the Petworth Parents e-mail discussion group to vent.
“I hardly ever use the listserv and I definitely never complain on it, but I was so shocked and surprised by the lack of services that I had to,” said Zimmerman, a global development specialist. “After two weeks, both our bins were overflowing.”
Complaints poured out in blogs and on social media, spurring a meeting at the top levels of Bowser’s administration on the same day the mayor was staring down Congress over a threat of jail time for pressing forward with marijuana legalization.
Late Thursday, Bowser’s administration responded with an e-mailed apology and promises to contract with private garbage collectors for what Howland said was the first time ever and to use overtime pay to eliminate the trash backlog by the end of the weekend.
“We apologize for the delay in service. We are committed to providing the best service possible to the District’s residents,” began a unique joint statement by Howland, city administrator Rashad Young, and public employee union leaders Andrew Lee and Barry Carey.
“This winter has been particularly challenging, but the District’s government and our employees are rising to the challenge,” the four said.
Young and Howland said the “all hands on deck” effort would include redirecting teams of workers who were diverted last month from leaf cleanup to snow cleanup. Now, they will work on trash cleanup. The e-mail statement also promised an “unprecedented effort to salt alleys to make them passable for trash collectors.”
Spotty trash collection in D.C. after storms is nothing new, in part because the city’s agreement with unions that represent trash collectors allows the trash truck drivers to skip alleys if they feel inclement weather has rendered them unsafe.
A Washington Post reporter observed that playing out several times in downtown neighborhoods this week and last. In one instance, trash collectors had begun to walk down an alley in the U Street corridor, opening bins, as their truck driver attempted to back in over a brick sidewalk caked with ice.
After two unsuccessful attempts, the driver whistled to the crew, and the two jumped on board without pulling the cans down the alley to the truck. They drove off, and the exercise was repeated in the next block.
Howland said city officials tried to persuade drivers to attempt more alleys Thursday, and five got stuck and needed tow trucks.
Bowser’s announcement of the stepped-up effort did not offer a price tag for overtime, contracted crews and de-icing of alleys.
It did, however, note that to get back on top of the issue, the city would temporarily suspend recycling in many places, commingling trash and the paper, glass and plastic that residents had sorted.