Near the Syphax Gardens public housing complex, gentrification has brought stunning amenities: Nationals Park, the soon-to-be-completed D.C. United soccer stadium, new apartments and restaurants. All are transforming the landscape of an often overlooked corner of the District, just west of the Anacostia River.
But that transformation has been stirring up the soil, sending clouds of irritating grit through the neighborhood known as Buzzard Point. Usually when new development encroaches on low-income communities, residents worry most about being squeezed out by rising costs. In Syphax Gardens, a more pressing concern is being choked out by dust.
“Some days, it’s like living in a desert storm,” said Rhonda Hamilton, who lives in Syphax Gardens and serves as a D.C. advisory neighborhood commissioner, representing about 2,000 residents in the area. “Our elderly residents complain about burning in their eyes and lungs; children with asthma are having more flare-ups. People start coughing and can’t catch their breath. It’s very scary.”
On a recent morning, Hamilton met with members of an environmental justice group she helped to found, the Near Buzzard Point Resilient Action Committee (NeRAC). They want District officials to do more to protect residents — redouble their enforcement efforts, plant more grass and trees in the neighborhood, help residents get better access to fresh fruits and vegetables, put up more air-quality monitors.
A report last year by Georgetown Law Center’s Institute for Public Representation noted that pollution around Buzzard Point had “exacerbated respiratory health problems in the community” and that some industries in the area had been fined several times for violating air-quality regulations.
Kari Fulton, a D.C. tour guide who volunteers as a community organizer with NeRAC, noted that the fines collected go into the city’s general fund. She wanted to push for a community benefits agreement that would allow fines to be used to help heal the neighborhoods where the damage was done.
“People have to endure all of this dust and inconvenience, only to end up being pushed out of the city. We don’t want that happening here,” Fulton said.
An air-quality monitor had been set up next to a closed window in the community room at Syphax Gardens. It was dusty, the windowsill above it even more so.
“You vacuum, mop and wipe all the time, but the dust just keeps accumulating,” Hamilton said.
Readings from the monitor have been alarming, registering levels of “fugitive dust” that exceed safety-related limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Shizuka Hsieh, a chemist at Trinity Washington University, analyzes the monitor findings for NeRAC. She noted that although the device is similar to the ones used by D.C. United at the soccer stadium construction site, it’s not EPA-certified.
That means the findings would not be admissible in court if the group decided to file a lawsuit.
Nevertheless, Hsieh said, “the monitor is picking up spikes in the type of particulate matter that is most likely to be absorbed into the lungs. Combine that with a large population of elderly people and children, and it’s a no-brainer: We have a problem.”
When a cement-mixing plant filed for renewal of an operating license last year, residents waged a valiant campaign to oppose it. They cited past infractions and ongoing problems. But the plant operator had outmaneuvered them. The facility that had been causing the problems was closing, and the new one would have better pollution controls.
In January, the city granted the license.
Within five blocks of the housing complex, there’s the new cement-mixing plant construction site and the soccer stadium, which is being built on land that was once classified as a “brownfield” site. Before construction began, the contaminated dirt was excavated and hauled away.
Residents complained that not enough safety precautions were being taken to protect them from the contaminated dust that escaped during the cleanup. But the city disagreed and allowed it to continue.
“You get the feeling that nothing is more important to this city than helping a developer meet a construction deadline,” Hamilton said. “The city motto ought to be: ‘Build, by any means necessary.’ ”
Construction has begun on a nearby Pepco substation, with transmission lines radiating out over the neighborhood. Ground has also been broken on the demolition and reconstruction of the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge, which spans the Anacostia River.
“What’s frustrating is that you have all these contaminates blowing in from different sources,” Fulton said.
The air-quality monitor can measure particulates of dust but not pinpoint the source.
In 2016, the D.C. government tried to take enforcement action against a Buzzard Point company, Recycled Aggregates, for leaving too much dirt and mud on public roads. In April last year, an administrative law judge dismissed the case, saying that the city had failed to prove that the material came from that company.
The Georgetown report recommended that residents document the problems, take photographs and make written accounts.
Alisha Camacho, an environmental educator and the videographer for NeRAC, has spent nearly three years helping residents do just that. She has decided to make their efforts into a documentary about the fight for clean air in Washington.
“The EPA Office of Environmental Justice says that no group of people, including racial or ethnic or socioeconomic, should bear a disproportionate share of environmentally negative consequences,” Camacho said.
There’s no mystery as to what group of people are bearing the brunt of the burden in Buzzard Point.
As Camacho put it, “Being black and poor shouldn’t make you forfeit the right to breathe clean air.”
During her walks through the neighborhood, Hamilton can sometimes hear the roar of the fans during a game at Nationals Park.
“What they don’t hear is all the coughing and wheezing going on over here,” she said.
The D.C. United stadium is set to open in July, bringing in about 20,000 fans per game. More traffic, more cheers around Syphax Gardens.
More dust, more coughs inside.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.