Rhonda Hamilton is a member of the Near Buzzard Point Resilient Action Committee and the advisory neighborhood commissioner for residents living near the District’s Buzzard Point area.
At the groundbreaking ceremony for the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge on Feb. 13, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and other city officials praised the project as a symbol of civic unity. There was no mention of how the bridge and waterfront construction threaten the health of nearby African American communities.
My neighborhood, west of the bridge in Southwest Washington, has been exposed to hazardous airborne chemicals for years. The construction will add more dust pollution and will expedite the displacement of Barry Farm residents east of the bridge to make way for waterfront development.
For nearly a decade, I have served as the advisory neighborhood commissioner representing 2,000 residents living near Buzzard Point. My community is combating environmental injustices and housing disparities. While we are grateful to those who have stood beside us and volunteered endless hours to help us, city officials have been largely absent. Despite research, advocacy and meetings with city agencies, we continue to take a back seat to development.
Next time you enter Washington via the Frederick Douglass bridge, look left. If the thick dust, diesel fumes and truck traffic don’t block your view, you will see our community, tucked away beneath the smog. Look for our elderly residents, who are afraid to cross streets because cement trucks speed down the narrow residential roads. Wave to our children, who have their inhalers attached at the hip so they can breathe while commuting to school. If you’re walking, be careful to dodge the rats running from construction sites and into our homes.
The 2016 Community Health and Safety Study was completed by the Health Department to address potential health and safety issues for communities near Buzzard Point.
The study found that “chronic lower respiratory diseases” are one of the top five causes of death in the 20024 Zip code and that the area has a “higher death rate for lung cancer than the District overall.” The study averaged health data from the entire Zip code, not just my neighborhood. My constituents are primarily African American with a mean income of $32,070. The other 20024 census tracts have significantly lower African American populations and mean incomes ranging from $130,944 to $158,958. Not surprisingly, the Buzzard Point Soccer Stadium Environmental Mitigation Study concluded that near Buzzard Point residents qualify as “potential environmental justice communities of concern.” Yet, despite the research and high rates of respiratory illness, heart disease and cancer, the city closed the only health clinic in Southwest five months ago.
How many potential polluters can you name in your neighborhood? I can name several. Superior Concrete Materials Inc. recently received a new air-quality permit from D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment to continue operating in our community, despite nearby residents’ complaints. Last year, the Georgetown Law Institute for Public Representation completed a letter outlining the “legal framework relevant to air quality concerns in Buzzard Point.” The letter acknowledged that “Buzzard Point has long been plagued by environmental and health concerns, stemming from historic industrial use” while outlining violations made by Superior and Vulcan Materials Company, another production facility in our community.
D.C. United fans, take some advice from us: Wear dust masks when you attend games this spring.
Around the corner, next to residents’ homes, is Pepco’s massive substation with underground transmission lines. The closer you are to the station and circuits, the more exposed you could be to the electromagnetic radiation emitted.
With the exception of D.C. United’s donation to fund air purifiers, no investment has been made to protect my vulnerable residents. City agencies have overlooked recommendations made by the Health Department to improve our resiliency and protections throughout the intense development in our community.
The gap between words and deeds is disturbing. As the District joins the Resilient Cities network with a commitment to become the nation’s “healthiest, greenest and most livable city,” the community I represent is left in the dust. Literally. A new and improved District does not have to come at the expense of the District’s historic African American communities and our air quality.
Our elected officials have a choice: They can perpetuate the same pattern of exposing vulnerable residents to chemicals, poor air quality and hazardous waste or they can make the District the healthiest, greenest and most livable city for everyone. We need better bridges across the river. We also need better bridges between our D.C. leaders and the communities affected by the construction boom we’re experiencing.
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