The District fails to put a lid on its lingering trash problems.

The impasse between private waste haulers and the District over trash-transfer stations has long been a rat’s nest of ill will and litigation, lined with charges of environmental racism (“Talkin’ Trash,” 1/26). Over the last decade, the District and private trash companies have traded lawsuits over code violations and their enforcement. Neighborhood activists have sued the private companies as well, for blighting their communities.

Yet, as another long, hot, and potentially smelly and unhygienic summer approaches, the odor still lingers in the city air.

The stalemate is centered on D.C.’s two public and four private trash-transfer stations, where waste is shifted from smaller trucks that make curbside pickups to larger trucks for the journey to landfills in rural Virginia and elsewhere.

A D.C. Council-appointed panel thrashed out a study last November, urging the city to consolidate its control over all trash transfer by closing the private haulers’ sites, renovating the city’s Fort Totten transfer station at 4900 Bates Road NE, and building a state-of-the-art facility on a city impoundment lot in Southwest.

The report has fallen on stony ground in the administration of Mayor Anthony A. Williams and among private haulers. Yet the recommendation to end private trash transfer and a looming compliance deadline have combined to soften the intransigence of companies that have battled the city over trash transfer for years.

Ron Adolph, a consultant for Waste Management Inc.—which operates two of the four private trash facilities in the District—says “right now is the appropriate time” for the city and the companies to arrive at a solution via negotiation. He believes that it could be achieved “with much less hassle than people think.”

Under the provisions of the Solid Waste Facility Permit Amendment Act of 1998, the main facility at any private trash-transfer station must be located at least 500 feet from adjoining property lines. The law includes a grace period that expires in April 2002, and if the private facilities haven’t straightened themselves out by that date, the District can shut them down. At present, none of the four private facilities are in compliance, and the District’s two transfer stations—though not covered under the law—also don’t measure up to that standard.

Yet if the District’s trash capacity has not been beefed up by then, it could face some highly unattractive options, which include finding alternative sites outside the District, turning a blind eye to violations of the law, extending the deadline, and fighting the private haulers in court. At present, less than a year before the grace period expires, the mayor and councilmembers have not settled on a comprehensive solution for trash transfer.

Marilyn Groves, an attorney with experience in trash issues in the District and New York City, who served on the trash-transfer panel, says that she worries about the approaching deadline. She cites the length of the process for bidding on and awarding contracts, and she fears that if the District fails to prepare itself, the companies could have the city government “over a barrel” if they threaten to walk away.

In short? Another smelly impasse.

Much of the controversy surrounding the District’s trash-transfer woes has focused on citizen complaints about private sites. The neighbors of one such facility, operated by Browning-Ferris Industries at 1220 W St. NE, have filed a class-action suit that has been joined by the D.C. branch of the NAACP.

Another citizen group, the Near Northeast Neighborhood Task Force, submitted a petition to Williams last August about a transfer station operated by Waste Management Inc. in the old Uline Arena at 1140 3rd St. NE, north of Union Station. The petition complained about odor, dust, rats, and other ills emanating from the site, and it even quoted an Amtrak safety engineer who observed that the smell is so powerful that the railway now tries to limit the time that its trains sit on the bridge that runs next to the facility.

The presence of unregulated private trash-transfer stations in the District is one of the legacies of the Barry and Kelly administrations. In the mid-’90s, the capacity of the District’s trash-transfer stations at Fort Totten and at 3200 Benning Road NE dropped dramatically, because of severe neglect by the city. To reduce the burden on those facilities, D.C. revoked private trash haulers’ access to the sites. The companies, in turn, set up their own facilities, taking advantage of what Neil Seldman, president of the Adams Morgan-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance, an environmental and community development group, characterizes as a “regulatory vacuum.”

In a series of steps culminating in the 1998 law, the D.C. Council tried to establish a legal framework for private trash-transfer facilities in the District. The private companies, however, have struck a defiant posture, and they have fought city government in court since that law was passed.

A.J. Cooper, a lawyer for Eastern Trans-Waste Inc. (ETW), believes that the city’s deadline for private transfer stations to clean up their act is “completely illegal and unenforceable.” The city, he argues, can’t “just wave a magic wand” and close down the

private facilities.

Cooper has some reason for confidence. In one case, which has dragged out since 1995, ETW has succeeded in blocking the District’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs from inspecting the company’s facility at 1329 I St. SE.

Adolph points to private transfer companies’ court victories and argues that more legal maneuvering could drag out the process for six or seven more years.

“At the end of the day,” Adolph concludes, “nobody wins.” He notes that when the city’s trash-transfer troubles began brewing, in 1994, and private companies were challenged on their move to fill the vacuum, “nobody thought we would be operating seven years later.”

At the same time, however, private transfer stations are making plans for a much different climate from the permissive one in which they were created. For starters, the firms now say that they are willing to negotiate with the city over their transfer sites.

Adolph, for instance, observes that Waste Management is willing to make concessions “to allow us to have a place to transfer trash in town at reasonable cost.” The company is not tied to particular facilities, he adds, as long as the process “somehow acknowledges that we have made investments” in those facilities.

Cooper also says that “it is my understanding that all the major companies in the industry are prepared to have serious negotiations [that] would result in one, maybe two, of the most egregious sites” among the four private facilities being shut down. He declines to say which facilities would be candidates for closure under this scenario, but he does say that ETW is prepared to spend “substantially more” than $1 million over the next 12 to 18 months to upgrade its facility and “enhance its aesthetic presentation.”

If the private companies seem willing to talk about breaking the stalemate, the voices of activists and city government seem less than unified.

Part of the divide has come as a result of the November report issued by the D.C. Council panel, which was chaired by George Washington University Professor Dorn McGrath, director of the Institute for Urban Environmental Research.

Trash-hauling firms bridled at the McGrath panel’s argument against private transfer sites, but almost every party to the trash dispute, including activists and others in D.C. government, balked at the proposal that the District build a new “state-of-the-art” site. Neighborhood groups argue that building a new facility in Anacostia would further burden a section of the city that already has more than its share of undesirable facilities—most notably the Blue Plains sewage-treatment plant.

Tom Henderson, the head of the District’s Solid Waste Management Administration, says that the recommendation of a site in Southwest “hit with a thud,” garnering neither public nor government support.

Seldman argues that the city should renovate its present facilities, rather than build a new trash-transfer site. Seldman has helped draft a memo for the mayor that critiques the panel report, and he maintains that the city will have sufficient capacity to handle its trash without a new site, via a strategy that combines a new and more efficient fleet of garbage trucks with a recycling initiative. Though Seldman has criticized some private facilities in the past, most specifically Waste Management’s operation at Uline Arena, he also believes that some of them might be successfully renovated. He characterizes the panel’s call to close down all of the sites as “cavalier.”

McGrath argues that recycling is “a very, very old story; one gets tired of hearing it replayed at very rudimentary levels.” He notes that the city had been trying to recycle for 20 years before ceasing its efforts two years ago. McGrath concedes that if the city did a good job on Benning Road and Fort Totten, it might not need a new facility, but he adds that there are big problems with those facilities, especially Benning Road. He also says that allowing a private operator to take over the whole trash-transfer function as a city contractor is a possibility, but he holds fast to his argument that the four private facilities should be closed.

Such squabbling leaves many observers expecting further uncertainty. At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz, who chairs the council’s Committee on Public Works and the Environment, argues that whatever solution is finalized, the Williams administration submitted insufficient budget numbers for trash transfer. Williams’ fiscal 2002 budget allotted $5.6 million over several years to fix the Fort Totten site, but it included no money for building a new transfer site or refurbishing Benning Road.

“I’m sorry that the mayor didn’t bite the bullet and give us some direction,” says Schwartz, whose committee attempted to blaze its own path in its April 11 report on Williams’ budget by recommending an additional $4.9 million to fund either option.

For his part, Henderson says that the problem was simply a delay in the issuance of the November report. He adds that members of the administration worked on the $4.9 million figure that was eventually settled upon for renovating a second transfer site and that the administration is “very pleased” by the outcome of the budget hearings.

McGrath says he knew that his report would generate what he calls “political heat,” but he argues that city residents are “suffering very seriously from being exposed to ad hoc transfer stations.” He believes that the trash issue “will blow up in the mayor’s face,” possibly as soon as this summer, as rising temperatures drive both the odor of the stations and the frustration levels of residents skyward.

“We’re trying to work on this,” says Henderson, “so that we’re not in crisis mode. Certainly, it’s becoming a front-burner issue, and the mayor recognizes that.” CP