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Paul Ruffins’ “Talking Trash” (1/26) sure won’t help scab over the wound that is municipal solid-waste management in D.C. It takes talent and self-confidence for a writer to wade into the book-length issues of environmental justice and waste management and expect to offer up a lucid account in only 6,000 words. In contrast to Malik Shabazz (“Black Power,” 1/19), who would throw gasoline on black D.C. residents’ smoldering passions, Ruffins brings an objective detachment to issues that are by their nature subjective, emotional, and political. Environmental justice is a strategy highly adaptable to any “minority” community’s circumstances. If there is even an appearance that a minority community might be subject to environmental conditions less favorable than a white one, there is a place at the table for environmental justice. Unlike the analytical approach Ruffins favors, environmental justice is about empowerment. It is subject to all the abuses I’ve seen in religion, and it offers many of the same benefits (e.g., faith). Coming at it objectively may elucidate inconsistencies, but if you think that will lead to resolution, forget it. The issue is so tied up with social and economic issues that to think that you’re just talking about the environment is naive.
Environmental-justice issues get resolved only when the folks carrying that stick decide to put it down. Unless the status quo chooses to ignore it, dialogue and deals are de rigueur. The suggestion by Carol Schwartz that D.C. ought to consider locating some amenity in Ward 8, like a library, in return for public agreement to a new trash-transfer station seems for all appearances like a buy-off, but it is a time-honored dealing strategy for resolving this kind of problem (even if it does look sleazy).
It is significant that this dialogue has been unfolding in D.C. for as long as I’ve been living hereat least since the mid-’80s, when environmental-justice arguments finally closed down the Benning Road incinerator. George Gurley, Damu Smith, Kevin Chavous, Jesse Jackson, and quite a few others rallied area residents to shut down that smudge pot of a trash-burner poisoning the black community of River Terrace. Threatened with environmental-justice arguments at every turn, in the ’90s, District politicos tried to avoid municipal solid-waste management decisions, but they nonetheless came up with the 500-foot setback on transfer stationsan action taken to reconcile D.C. mismanagement with the demands of mostly black communities that were stuck with the privately owned transfer stations described by Ruffins.
The current chapter will be written with all the constraints of past environmental-justice “victories.” Environmental-justice issues are decided community by community, and big strategy has always eluded the movement. As a consequence, economic interests will likely dictate the outcome in large measure; the environmental impacts from waste management are as unavoidable in D.C. as, currently, auto exhaust.
D.C. Environmental Planning Commission Recycling and Solid Waste Committee