A majority of the D.C. Council is urging Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s administration to stop demolition work on the campus of the shuttered D.C. General Hospital campus after workers discovered elevated levels of lead about 250 feet away from buildings that house more than 100 homeless families.
Administration officials say that there is no danger to public health and that demolition of the vacant building can continue after they decontaminate the soil where testing detected lead. But lawmakers said officials were gambling with children’s health in a situation where there is no need for haste in razing the former hospital building.
“We have a situation in which proceeding with the demolition potentially puts the health of vulnerable residents at risk with no discernible upside that has been publicly articulated,” D.C. Council members said in a letter to Bowser (D). “We simply do not understand the urgency to demolish these buildings and certainly cannot imagine a reason that outweighs the danger to the families living on the D.C. General campus.”
The letter was signed by council members Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large), David Grosso (I-At Large), Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and Charles Allen (D-Ward 6).
The letter followed a similar communication that council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), who leads a council committee that oversees services for homeless people, sent Tuesday to the Department of General Services, which manages city real estate.
Before adjourning for the summer last month, lawmakers considered legislation to halt demolition at D.C. General until families had been relocated.
They instead passed a bill requiring weekly reporting of lead and asbestos testing results.
The demolition has also drawn the ire of progressive activists and advocates for the homeless.
Bowser has championed a plan to close the dilapidated megashelter and replace it with a network of smaller facilities designed to better serve homeless families. She announced in January that D.C. General would be permanently closed by the end of the year and that demolition work would start before then.
Her administration has repeatedly declined to explain why the city is moving ahead with demolition before October, when the remaining families are slated to move out.
“Let’s get this right. I don’t understand what the rush is. I think it would be good for this administration to explain exactly why there is such a rush,” said council member Gray, whose ward includes the D.C. General campus.
Elevated levels of lead were detected in soil samples taken July 20 in the immediate perimeter of a vacant structure known as Building 9. The city did not notify residents of the finding until Aug. 4.
Nadeau did not support the July legislation to halt demolition but said the discovery of elevated lead levels now justifies such a move.
“Finally, as we have reached a critical phase in deconstruction, I think it is important that we work together to develop and communicate a set of parameters that would result in the termination of deconstruction of Building 9 until all residents are removed from the Core Building,” she wrote Tuesday in her letter, which posed questions about how testing for dangerous substances was conducted.
The administration plans to provide answers by the end of next week.
On Thursday, a few residents interviewed outside the shelter said they were distrustful of the city’s assurances that the lead posed no danger to them.
Sharronda Marbley, who moved out of the shelter last week into a city-subsidized apartment, said she was alarmed that the city did not immediately notify residents about the results of the lead tests. She said her 7-year-old son has signs of lead exposure from earlier living conditions.
“A lot of people in the shelter just want to be placed in stable housing, and they don’t even care what’s going on around them,” said Marbley, 25. “But for people like myself, who still care about residents who are still there, and for the health risks, I think that it’s great they are trying to postpone the demolition before it makes anything else worse.”
Reis Thebault contributed to this report.