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Problems at D.C.’s trash transfer stations include structural damage and coronavirus

D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3)
D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

A series of problems — related to both structural damage and coronavirus cases — have limited the ability of Washington’s two trash transfer stations to handle the city’s waste.

First, last month, one of the three chutes that whisks away trash dumped at the Benning Road transfer station started separating from the concrete it is anchored in, according to information given to Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) by officials at the Department of Public Works.

A spokeswoman for Cheh, who chairs the council committee that oversees waste management, said further inspection found that all three chutes were badly damaged. The city started diverting almost all of its waste to the other transfer station at Fort Totten, Cheh spokeswoman Kelly Whittier said.

Then, workers at both transfer stations tested positive for the novel coronavirus, according to an email that a solid waste disposal administrator sent to trash companies and government officials last Monday that was obtained by The Washington Post.

The email said the stations would be closed that weekend for deep cleaning.

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Department of Public Works spokeswoman Felicia McLemore said three workers at Fort Totten and one at Benning Road have tested positive for the virus since March.

The city knew about structural problems at the Benning Road facility for months before they became so severe as to make it mostly unusable.

At budget hearings in May, Cheh described the site as “in dire need of being torn down because it’s a safety hazard in its current state,” and asked officials why they had not budgeted the nearly $30 million needed to demolish and rebuild it until 2026.

“I was wondering, if there is a safety hazard situation there, why we’re waiting so long to begin construction,” Cheh said. “You’re satisfied that we can keep it together?”

Rashad M. Young, who was city administrator at the time, laughed and answered, “With a little bit of bubble gum and tape.”

In November, Whittier said, one of the trash chutes separated from its concrete base while a truck was unloading trash into it. Workers then looked at all three chutes and found they would all need replacing.

The tipping floor that multi-ton trash trucks drive onto is also falling apart, Whittier said; in some places it’s down to bare rebar.

The city has asked contractors for proposals to replace the chutes, but does not yet know when the work will be done or how much it will cost, she said.

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Meanwhile, most waste is going to the other publicly operated transfer station at Fort Totten, where a mound of refuse about two stories high sits in the open air.

The city’s waste management regulations declare, “Solid waste delivered to the facility shall only be deposited, placed, sorted, disposed or processed in an enclosed building with impermeable floors.”

Department of Public Works officials have told Cheh’s office and The Post that the waste mountain at Fort Totten is composed entirely of bulk trash dropped off by residents, like unwanted furniture, not waste dumped by trash trucks that would violate the law if it sat outside.

McLemore told The Post that it is safer for residents to dispose of their items outside.

But workers at the facility, and residents who stop there to dispose of items and find a foul-smelling pile, have complained to Cheh’s office that the mound does indeed contain trash.

Cheh said she asked the Department of Energy and the Environment to inspect the station and suggest ways to responsibly handle the waste until the Benning Road station is fixed.

“That assessment should include whether this carries any ill effects for people who live around there,” she said. “If Benning Road is a long-term project, we have to figure out a solution to this. We can’t just have trash hanging in a big mound outside.”

Open-air trash presents environmental and safety hazards — rainwater can flush toxins from the trash pile into the city’s waterways, and wind can blow gusts of toxic dust and smells into neighborhoods.

In May, Director of Public Works Christopher Geldart testified that the city faces a fine from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “around the $10 million range” for environmental hazards relating to storm water management at its trash transfer facilities.

He said the city was doing everything it could to remedy the problems.

As of last week, the trash still towered into the sky at Fort Totten, as scavenger birds circled overhead.

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