The incessant hum of activity at Super Salvage has finally slowed, and the towering piles of metal that once reached as high as three stories have shrunk to almost nothing. The giant cranes — dipping and rising like hulking beasts — are still there, but soon they’ll go quiet, too.
After more than 60 years in Southwest Washington’s Buzzard Point neighborhood, the District’s last metal scrap yard is clearing out to make way for a soccer stadium. On Oct. 27, the city finalized a deal to buy Super Salvage’s acre of land for almost $16 million, and the company has to be gone by Christmas. Two or three years from now, that property, together with several mostly vacant neighboring parcels, will be a 13-acre stadium complex for D.C. United, the District’s major-league soccer team.
“This was my bread and butter,” said Steven Middlethon, president of Super Salvage, which began shutting down operations in November. He owns two other scrap yards, in Southern Maryland, and is in the process of finding a new site just over the D.C. border in the state. But he isn’t happy about leaving the District. “It’s benefited me because there’s a lot of demolition, a lot of construction, going on in the D.C. area, and we’ve been right in the center of all that.”
Founded in 1952 by Middlethon’s great-uncle, Bob Kaplan, Super Salvage is a recycling operation at heart. It’s not an attractive one: The property is dusty and ragged, and as recently as September, it was crowded with makeshift piles holding bathtubs, eviscerated refrigerators, rebar mesh, old radiators, fire hydrants and many other no-longer-useful objects that would otherwise go into landfills.
Contractors and demolition companies, as well as local residents from around the region, would bring in those items and earn cash for them — more for valuable materials such as copper or aluminum, less for ferrous alloys. Then Super Salvage employees would sort and clean and cut those goods into smaller pieces, which would be trucked to foundries and melted down.
Between 2004 and 2008 — at the height of the city’s development boom and when metal prices were at a record high — the number of customers at Super Salvage doubled. But those boom years are over; metal prices have been significantly down all year.
Washington’s history could be told in part by the materials that have come through the scrap yard. According to longtime Super Salvage employees, the machine that dug the tunnels for the Metro system wound up there after its job was done; so did The Washington Post’s old printing presses, as did gun barrels from ancient Navy Yard cruisers and structural steel from the Beltway’s big high-occupancy toll lanes project a few years ago. Plus many thousands of tons of materials from demolished buildings across the city.
Many of the companies that have sold metal to Super Salvage are philosophical about the closing. “It was good while it lasted,” said Ross Tumulty, president of Celtic Demolition, one of the scrap yard’s biggest clients. The two firms had a warm relationship — Middlethon would keep Super Salvage open late to accommodate the demolition company’s hours — but in the end, there are several scrap yards in Prince George’s County that Celtic can visit.
It’s the “scrappers” who seek out abandoned metal in dumpsters and alleys and bring it to Super Salvage via carts or bicycles and who could be most affected. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of them throughout the city — guys such as Bill Whitmore, a 71-year-old District native who has been scrapping for 30 or 40 years, spending whole days searching out old air-conditioning units or car parts that he straps onto his bicycle and redeems at Super Salvage for maybe $30.
Like many other scrappers, Whitmore said he’ll figure out a way to get to the next-closest scrap yard, which is seven miles away. “Ain’t nothing I can do about it,” he said.
Middlethon was hoping that the D.C. government would want to retain an industrial business like his that pays decent wages to workers without college degrees and that it would help him find another property inside the city. But in the end, he said, “There really isn’t any industrial land left in D.C., and what little bit there is, they’d have to make special exceptions” for his business.
Bob Kaplan probably wouldn’t be too surprised. His business was originally located on Delaware Avenue in Southwest Washington, but he lost it in the early 1950s to eminent domain to make room for Interstates 395 and 695.
“I think Super Salvage is at least the fourth one that I know of that closed down in the District and moved to the suburbs or even further,” said Scott Horne, general counsel for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries. Urban scrap yards continually have to fight condemnation proceedings or other efforts to get them out, he said. Sometimes they’re perceived as unattractive in a city that’s upgrading its image; sometimes there’s simply a shortage of land.
Joaquin McPeek, spokesman for the District’s office of the deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said that in this case, it’s the latter. “D.C. has never been a big industrial city,” he said. The amount of land zoned as industrial has shrunk by a quarter since 1975 and now covers only 4 percent of the city. “I think we’re seeing a shift to a different type of manufacturing — we’re seeing brewers and coffee roasteries and distilleries opening up, and they don’t require heavy use of land,” said McPeek, adding that “a lot of the skills that exist in salvage or other industries may be transferable.”
For now, Super Salvage, which is largely employee-owned, is hoping all 22 of its workers will be able to move to the new location once it’s finalized. There, they’ll set up the scrap yard’s machines and let the piles grow big again — an island of old-school ways at the edge of a city that’s passing it by.