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When Mayor Anthony A. Williams leaves office, many will surely focus on the litany of big development projects completed during his tenure: a new convention center, the resurgence of Chinatown, the influx of big-box chains, and serious face-lifts to various city facilities. But come January, one long-promised project will be left unfinished and stinking up his legacy: the Fort Totten trash-transfer station.
The Fort Totten dump has long been a contentious issue among District residents. Those who live nearby have to endure both the dump’s rotten-fruit-and-soiled-diaper perfume and the procession of trash trucks rolling through the neighborhood. And those citizens who actually want to use it have to put up with plenty of annoyances of their own. Bitching about the dump has become a civic tradition alongside griping about snow removal and the DMV inspection station.
The dump is an expanse of rotting topography. The warehouse, or “tipping floor”—where most of the dirty work takes place—sits on a slope like a ruin. During the day, a procession of pickups, wagons, and trash trucks drive into the dark, hangarlike space and dump their debris on the floor (hence the name “tipping floor”). Front-loaders then push the fetid piles down slides that are affixed to holes cut into the side of the building. The trash vomits out of these holes, down these metal tongues, and into waiting rigs. Once filled, trucks are then weighed to see if they are under the legal weight limit. If they are carrying too much debris, the trucks have to return and dump enough load to meet the proper weight. The rigs then haul the trash out of the city to an area incinerator or various regional landfills. It is a slow, stinky process.
Over the years, long lines and shoddy machinery have only made Fort Totten that much more infamous among residents. And it hasn’t improved with age. “It works, but it’s not pretty,” admits Tom Henderson, the head of solid-waste management with the Department of Public Works (DPW).
There are parts of the site that are even less pretty. The warehouse walls’ metal siding is afflicted with cuts and holes and punctures from the scoopers below—hauling trash is not a delicate procedure. One section of the wall has buckled and appears to be held up by only a thin pipe. And citizens looking to offload an old couch or a broken sink without getting in line for the tipping floor can ditch their loads in an adjacent fenced-in lot—basically an open-air dump.
“The issue with Fort Totten has always been an issue, because it’s a dump,” says Ward 5 D.C. Council candidate Harry Thomas Jr. Having worked for his father—deceased Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas Sr.—he recalls that it’s been a sore spot since the ’80s.
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In the mid-’90s, the site’s compactors busted, leaving city workers to sort and haul the trash from an open-air lot. The Washington Post reported that this violated the city’s health and regulatory standards. As the site’s equipment continued to deteriorate and its capacity shrunk, Fort Totten became such a notorious place that private companies started opening up transfer stations all over the city as a way to make easy money and lure in those who couldn’t stand the long lines at the city facility.
Three months into its first year, the Williams administration promised to overhaul Fort Totten. Leslie Hotaling, then a solid-waste administrator with DPW, told the Post on March 5, 1998, that “We recognize the problem. This is why we are investing so heavily in having a state-of-the-art facility by the year 2000.”
Eight years later, Ward 5 citizens have a Home Depot but not a suitable place to toss their old bricks and flooring. DPW contractors have barely gotten off the ground at Fort Totten—only the site’s tipping floor has been rebuilt. And eventually the floor will have to be expanded by dozens of square feet. This past spring the city awarded a $13 million contract to finally remake the facility. Construction is supposed to begin this fall, with the revamping scheduled to take at least a year.
City officials site a variety of reasons for the delay: The Benning Road trash-transfer facility took priority; there wasn’t enough money in the budget; there were major zoning issues to be considered. “They were talking about doing that in 1999,” Henderson says. “There was probably lots of discussion before that. We’re kind of worn out….It’s almost anticlimactic when it actually happens.”
“It just seems to take so long to get stuff done,” he explains. “Unfortunately, nothing surprised me.”
Located a few blocks from RFK Stadium, the Benning Road facility’s upgrades were completed in June of last year. The warehouse’s roof was extended and the space enlarged, giving room for three loaders to sort and pick up the trash and drop the debris into trucks waiting below. Henderson notes that the warehouse’s ceiling now boasts skylights and misters that constantly spit out an odor-eating spray—“a kind of vanilla-y smell,” he says. “The basic idea is to neutralize [the trash smell].”
Henderson says that the construction contract calls for Fort Totten to be given a similar makeover. He promises that when the overhaul is finished, it will be considerably more citizen-friendly. Traffic will be rerouted, limiting truck congestion, and there will be a designated spot for citizens to dump their debris without having to compete for tipping-floor space. And the tipping floor itself will be fully enclosed so nearby citizens won’t have to smell the dump’s fragrant offerings in July.
Citizens may have to wait a long time before they actually see such improvements. Benning Road’s citizen drop-off point is ready to go except for one thing—DPW is still waiting on new trash trucks to cart residents’ trash off to regional facilities.
“It’s not like buying a car,” Henderson explains during a recent afternoon’s tour of the two facilities.
DPW spokesperson Mary Myers, accompanying him, says that the trucks could take about six months to be manufactured.
And, Henderson is quick to add, “We’re at the end of the model year right now.”CP