A bold maneuver by D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie has raised the possibility that a long-controversial trash transfer station in Northeast Washington could be closed for good, prompting praise from many neighborhood residents.
But some residents are wary of what might replace the waste facility in Brentwood, and the trash company is questioning the proposal’s reliance on use of eminent domain.
McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who represents the neighborhood, wrote legislation that allows the District to seize the 2.4-acre site for use by the city’s water agency.
D.C. Water is under pressure to move from its site along the Anacostia waterfront near Nationals Park to clear the way for a new development that could include a 16-screen luxury movie theater. McDuffie’s emergency bill, which the council passed Dec. 17, does not take the property from its owners, but it does authorize the mayor to move forward.
McDuffie said that legislation could allow the District to circumvent a 2009 legal settlement in which the private company that owns the trash transfer facility agreed to improve the site and the city pledged not to try to shut it down for 25 years. Mandating the relocation of the D.C. Water facility to Brentwood, he maintained, is the last, best chance to get the transfer station — and its attendant odor and vermin — out of the neighborhood.
“This has been a historical environmental injustice, that a trash transfer station would be placed in such close proximity to people’s houses,” McDuffie said. “There’s no way to buffer that from the community. I don’t think there’s anything we can do short of getting rid of it from that site.”
The trash facility is operated by Progressive Waste Solutions, a Canadian firm that does more than $2 billion in yearly business. While the upgrades it has installed — new sound barriers, a repaved yard, better “dust control and deodorizing systems” — have helped somewhat, the facility is still far from an ideal neighbor, residents say. Even on a winter day and with deodorizer misting from nozzles above the transfer station’s huge rolling doors, the odor is unmistakable.
“It’s an awful long time to endure what we have had to endure,” said the Rev. Morris L. Shearin Sr., who has been pastor of nearby Israel Baptist Church since the facility opened in 1988. “The odor of those trucks and the dumping, it’s unreal.”
McDuffie’s belief that the use of eminent domain could allow the District to ignore its legal agreement is based on a recent opinion by the city attorney general’s office, which cited an 1848 Supreme Court decision in declaring that “no contract may limit the government’s right of eminent domain.”
Part of the D.C. Water operations are to be moved to Prince George’s County. But the utility says some key customer service functions must remain centrally located in the city — somewhere like Brentwood.
Robert McReynolds, Progressive’s Mid-Atlantic-area manager, said the company was in talks with city officials about selling or relocating the trash facility earlier in 2014. But those discussions stalled when McDuffie’s bill surfaced in November. After the council vote, the firm said in a statement that the trash transfer station’s closure would eliminate jobs and impede “critical services” for residents.
“We wanted to be good neighbors in Ward 5,” McReynolds said. “To use that big stick is disappointing.”
He appeared to question whether the city could adequately deal with its trash without the privately operated station. The city operates two transfer stations of its own, near Fort Totten and on Benning Road near the Anacostia River, and there is another private facility, owned by Waste Management, off Queens Chapel Road NE.
“I would have to assume that the District feels that they’ve got enough capacity at their two transfer stations,” McReynolds said.
Also complicating the potential relocation of D.C. Water operations to Brentwood is the perception among some neighborhood residents that raw sewage would be handled on the site. Michelle Bundy, a resident of nearby 13th Place NE, told a D.C. Water executive at a recent community meeting: “I don’t want your sewage trucks, and I don’t want your trash. . . . Find something else to place in Ward 5.”
McDuffie and D.C. Water officials say the perception is mistaken. If selected for the relocation, the site would house a fleet of sewer-service trucks, but no sewage would be treated there, said utility spokesman John Lisle. Trucks that had handled sewage at the Blue Plains treatment plant at the city’s southern tip would be cleaned, he said, before arriving at the Brentwood site.
“There is no sewage treatment on site, and, no, we don’t anticipate any odors,” Lisle said.
Residents’ concerns are rooted in distrust that has built up over decades — including over promises aired in the late 1980s, and recalled by Shearin and others, that the trash transfer site would host only recyclables, not raw garbage.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who was sworn in Friday, voted for the eminent-domain authorization in one of her final votes as a council member representing Ward 4. But she has not said whether or how she will proceed to use it. Former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) supported the bill as well, writing in a letter to the council that “having this tool available to the incoming Administration will be helpful in finalizing the future of the site.”
The latest tussle over the transfer station has also exposed a rift between two D.C. Council members. When McDuffie first brought his bill to the council, he encountered objections from Vincent B. Orange (D-At Large), who represented Ward 5 from 1999 through 2006 and supported previous efforts to shut down the W Street facility and others like it.
Orange raised concerns about whether the city could get around the 2009 settlement, requesting the legal opinion, and questioned the potential cost of the taking. He asked why McDuffie wasn’t pursuing a movie theater or other upscale development for the Brentwood site.
But at a Dec. 15 community meeting that Orange called, Earline Frazier, president of the Brentwood Community Association and a resident of nearby Downing Street NE, told him to get out of McDuffie’s way.
“Anything that comes in that spot is better than what we’re getting now,” she said after describing persistent vermin and an odor that “knocks you out.”
McDuffie arrived halfway through the meeting, his two young daughters in tow, and gave an impassioned monologue. “You’ve had council member after council member after council member . . . the bottom line is the trash transfer station is still there,” he said. “Trust me to do my job.”
After language was added to the bill deeming the D.C. Water use “temporary,” Orange voted to support it.