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Ruth Wilson had waited years to testify against the trash-hauling company that she contended had made her life hell. So when the older, neatly dressed black woman finally got her chance, she wasted few words: “BFI has denied me, a senior citizen who has lived [near a trash-transfer station] for 38 years, my rights under the U.S. Constitution,” she said. “I have been denied my right to environmental justice.”
Wilson’s home on 13th Street NE is located just 200 feet from a private trash-transfer station built by Brown Ferris Industries, one of the nation’s largest waste haulers, and she was testifying about the noise, vermin, and blowing trash that she said were the constant byproducts of the facility, where refuse from scores of individual garbage trucks is consolidated each day.
She had come on this late-October afternoon to the main hall of Trinity College in Brookland to attend a public hearing of the D.C. Solid Waste Transfer Facility Selection Advisory Panel, a group whose innocuously bureaucratic-sounding name masked the sharply controversial nature of its task: deciding where a badly needed new municipal trash-transfer station would be located. The panel had picked the Metropolitan Police Department impound lot in Ward 8 and was now collecting public reactions to its preliminary recommendation, which would be sent on to the D.C. Council.
Wilson was pleased, actually, with the panel’s plan, because it envisioned shutting down the largely unregulated transfer station that had plagued her neighborhood for years and sending some of the trash to the new, state-of-the-art facility, which would be located at least 10 times farther from any private homes.
“I support the panel’s report that no transfer station should be near a citizen’s home,” Wilson testified.
Hers was not, however, the only opinion. Around the hall were various experts and a group of angry Ward 8 residents and activists who fiercely opposed the idea. Some thought that the intended site ought to be reserved for a Wal-Mart or a Kmart. Others insisted that Ward 8 was already overburdened, with the Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant. But one refrain was common to all the critics: Locating a new trash-transfer station in the economically depressed, overwhelmingly African-American ward amounted to a clear case of environmental racism.
“We don’t have a supermarket or a movie theater,” said Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, a Ward 8 activist who had helped oppose a proposed privately run prison near the same location, “yet we have to spend all of our time fighting off things like a prison—and now a trash-transfer station.”
“Ward 3 has some nice parkland where we can put a transfer station,” said activist Sandra Seegars, who had unsuccessfully run for the city council from Ward 8, referring to the largely wealthy and mostly white ward in Northwest.
“If we really want to be fair,” remarked an aide to Ward 8 Councilmember Sandy Allen during a break in the testimony, “we should put it over in Rock Creek Park, where the white people are. Beach Drive has easy access to the Beltway.”
The opponents to the Ward 8 site also had the Sierra Club on their side: Julie Eisenhardt, of the Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice Project in Southeast, which had also helped fight the prison, told the hearing that a private developer had submitted an unsolicited bid to build housing on the site. “The real solution,” Eisenhardt testified, “is to creatively think outside the box and pass laws to increase the incentive to recycle rather than dumping in black neighborhoods. We should reduce the amount of rubbish in the city.”
And they even had the support of the local trash-hauling industry, which opposes the closing of the existing private—and profitable—transfer stations. “I stand with the public,” declared Ronald Adolph, a consultant for Waste Management Inc. “I share the concerns of the people in Ward 8.”
The scene, in other words, was a display of something extraordinary in this often racially conflicted city: neighbors, politicians, a national environmental group, and private industry all uniting to defend a black community from an environmental injustice. But things are not always what they seem, and environmental justice in the District can rarely be defined in black and white.
In a city where black folks once populated Georgetown, and Anacostia was once home to both elite and working-class whites, pollution patterns don’t necessarily conform to current stereotypes. Our Unfair Share: Pollution in Washington, D.C., a detailed guide to pollution sources in every ward of D.C. written by Norris McDonald of the African American Environmentalists Association (of which the author of this story once served on the board of directors), lists water discharges, leaking underground storage tanks, chemical spills, and stationary sources of pollution such as the Georgetown University Medical Center.
“When the complete data is considered,” observes McDonald, “the real pattern of pollution is much more complicated than the simple idea that Ward 8 is black and dirty, and Ward 3 is white and clean.” For example, in the wealthy recesses of American University and Spring Valley in far Northwest, some beautiful lawns conceal unexploded ordnance; the neighborhood was used for artillery training and testing of chemical gases before and during World War I.
The false black/white dichotomy was evident when Donald Jackson, a representative of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8E, asked the site-selection panel why it wasn’t holding its hearing in the community that was going to be most affected by its decision. By simply assuming that that community was Ward 8, Jackson was following the symbolic racial script, rather than the real data.
Trinity College is affiliated with Catholic University of America, which borders the aging Fort Totten trash-transfer station, so in fact, the meeting was being held in the community that will be the most affected by any decision. The proposed new transfer station would be located in a relatively secluded part of Southwest that would be 3,000 feet from any private homes. Yet in the name of protecting “the black community,” the Ward 8 opponents were consigning the equally African-American neighborhoods of Northeast to continued victimization from that quadrant’s three existing transfer stations—at 2160 Queens Chapel Road NE, 1220 W St. NE, and 1140 3rd St. NE—all of which are much closer to private homes. Homes of people like Ruth Wilson.
There are other ironies in this environmental-justice battle as well. How many other times in its history, for example, had the Sierra Club, an organization dedicated to defending and preserving wildlife and wilderness, ever allied itself with the interests of the waste industry or a community group whose aspiration was to build a big-box store, or advocated turning public land over to private developers?
And, given that the Ward 8 opponents were trying to make a case for environmental racism, where were the black environmental experts to help make it? Greater Washington is home to some of the nation’s most respected African-American environmental experts and activists. In addition to McDonald, there is Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, a senior adviser on toxins at the Environmental Protection Agency, who holds a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and published some of the earliest essays on the politics of ecology in Africa. Damu Smith of Greenpeace did much of the legwork to organize the groundbreaking First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in D.C. in 1992. Deeohn Ferris headed up the environmental-justice project of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and runs an environmental-consulting firm.
Yet none of these men and women were at the Trinity meeting—or had been asked to play any significant role in the debate. The cultural chasm between African-American communities and the green movement means that they, and other local black professional environmentalists, are virtually invisible in the policy circles of the District.
A few trusted black environmentalists would have been welcome at Trinity. The tension amid the cameras and microphones at the panel’s hearing was common to situations where everyone involved has vested interests at stake and believes that some people can win only if others end up losing. This kind of community meeting is happening more frequently in the District as development increasingly proves to be a double-edged sword. Many citizens would agree, for example, that the District needs advanced telecommunications, expanded treatment for drug abusers, and more rental housing. Yet citizens in Tenleytown persuaded city officials to block completion of a gigantic broadcast tower, residents of Capitol Hill are fighting a Boys Town proposal to open a drug-treatment center, and environmentalists in Cleveland Park recently chained themselves to trees to stop construction of a proposed apartment building.
Seemingly worthy projects can suddenly become locally unwanted land uses, or LULUs, because those who benefit most are not necessarily those who live closest. LULUs involve struggles over what’s good for the environment, economically desirable, or socially just. These conflicts become even more bitter and complicated when race is involved, and in D.C., the race card can often make a winning hand. That’s why the American Tower Corp., the company building the Tenleytown tower, engaged the Graham-Williams Group, the PR firm of black conservative Armstrong Williams, to publicize accusations by a black businessman, Bill Reed, that Mayor Anthony A. Williams was engaging in a form of racial injustice by halting construction on the communications tower. Reed believes Williams is perpetrating a double standard by yielding to a wealthy white community’s objections to the tower’s being “just too big” and a possible source of falling ice, when black neighborhoods suffer with much worse—an argument repeated by Ward 8 opponents of the proposed trash-transfer station.
Racial politics get even weirder in the environmental politics of D.C. The most influential environmental groups, such as the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, were formed long ago to protect wildlife and wilderness areas. Their memberships are largely upper-middle-class people who believe that overconsumption is the main threat to Planet Earth. By contrast, grass-roots black groups in the District aim to protect urban interests and are filled with working- or middle-class activists who often believe the main threat to black communities is economic underdevelopment, which prevents minorities from consuming the same things upper-class whites enjoy.
This can lead to culture clashes and information gaps. Many African-American leaders have little expertise in environmental policies. Many greens know little about urban black communities. As a result, African-Americans in the District have sometimes adopted policy positions seemingly at odds with their own long-term ecological interests. The momentous fight over the city’s proposed 1987 bottle bill, in which leading black ministers ended up condemning a returnable deposit on cans and bottles as a racial conspiracy, is one example.
Neighborhood opposition to the proposed River Terrace station during the planning of the Metro’s Blue Line was another. Residents feared that “outsiders” would take their parking spaces, so the Metro station was moved farther down Benning Road. Thus, a neighborhood suffering such bad air pollution that it would later fight PEPCO’s expansion of the Benning Road power plant made itself more dependent on cars.
“In D.C., ‘environmental justice’ is a term that has no set meaning backed up by clear environmental principles or any true political mandate,” says former At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot. “It’s just a phrase people invoke whenever they want to justify their position at the time.”
To understand how a modern trash-transfer station ended up being labeled an environmental injustice, it helps to know the inside dirt on how the District handles its garbage. Over the years, the District’s trash-handling infrastructure has shifted from local landfills and incinerators to transfer stations, where many smaller loads of trash are collected into larger trucks for transport to remote incinerators and landfills.
There are two city-owned trash-transfer facilities, Fort Totten and the former Benning Road incinerator, which is no longer in operation. There are also seven privately owned transfer stations: four that handle trash, two that primarily recycle construction rubble (which doesn’t attract vermin), and one that takes old furniture and other bulk items.
Transfer stations are necessary because negotiating the city’s narrow streets and alleys requires compact short-haul trucks too small to make a profitable run to the Lorton incinerator or the huge landfills of Southern Virginia. Instead, they take their loads to transfer stations, where, in a single day, 200 small truckloads can be transferred to 30 or so huge tractor-trailers.
The four virtually unregulated private trash-transfer stations are relatively new. They sprang up in commercial zones, some near residential neighborhoods, after the administrations of former Mayor Marion S. Barry Jr. and Sharon Pratt Kelly mismanaged the city’s main trash facilities. By the end of 1985, Fort Totten’s hydraulic compactors had failed and the facility was operating at only about 30 percent of its original capacity. By 1993, the Benning Road station was near collapse, and the city had stopped accepting the 72 percent of local trash picked up by private haulers, who paid tipping fees to use the public facilities. Like most cities, the District picks up trash only from private homes and apartment buildings of fewer than four units, which altogether amounts to only about 28 percent of the city’s total trash volume. All commercial businesses, hospitals, colleges, restaurants, offices, and major apartment buildings are serviced by private haulers. Trucks not associated with the company that owns a particular private transfer station must pay a tipping fee to dump trash there. It makes for good business. “Together, the private stations net about $10,000 a day in tipping fees,” notes Neil Seldman of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Adams Morgan.
The nine-person site-selection panel was convened by the D.C. Council with the goal of helping people like Wilson, by solving the problems with the existing private transfer stations. The panel’s primary spokesperson is its chair, Dorn McGrath, a geographer and George Washington University professor of urban environmental studies. Appearing tense but knowledgeable at the Trinity hearing, McGrath acknowledged that a trash-transfer station was something that no one would happily welcome right next door. But he explained that panel members had visited several state-of-the-art facilities that didn’t have the problems that plague those in the District.
McGrath detailed the thinking that had led the panel’s members—with the exception of trash-industry representative Chaz Miller, who was opposed, and George Gurley of River Terrace, who resigned in protest—to agree that the best and fairest option was to rebuild Fort Totten to its full capacity, turn the Benning Road transfer station into a recycling center, and construct a new transfer station on the huge police impound lot in far Southwest, off I-295 near the Prince George’s County border. The impound lot is near D.C. Village, a large city-owned complex that includes the police academy and has been used at various times as a nursing home, homeless shelter, and reform school.
McGrath argued that the location was the only flat, D.C.-owned property with excellent truck access and enough space to satisfy the city’s 1999 law requiring a 500-foot buffer zone between transfer stations and nearby residences. Trash-industry executives maintain that this requirement is excessive and was intentionally designed to be nearly impossible to meet, thus forcing the closure of all existing private transfer stations when it goes into effect in 2002.
The panel’s recommendations were built around a legal maneuver developed with the pro bono help of legal powerhouse Covington & Burling intended to dramatically reduce the amount of trash coming into the District by cleverly exploiting a 1994 Supreme Court decision. In the C&A Carbone, Inc. vs. Clarkstown case, the Supreme Court rebuked Virginia’s attempt to reject trash from New York City, ruling that the Constitution’s interstate commerce provisions make it illegal for Virginia to try to stop its private landfills from participating in the growing and profitable commerce in out-of-state trash. Virginia’s low-tax, pro-business philosophy had kept it from building adequate public landfills—which are permitted to exclude out-of-state trash—so the state had no choice but to accept New York’s garbage.
By building a new transfer station in Southwest and investing in the additional capacity to handle all of D.C.’s trash in publicly owned facilities, the District could avoid Virginia’s blunder and legally exclude the 30 percent of its yearly waste stream that the private transfer stations now import from out of state. There are big profits in those 366,900 tons of trash, so it’s easy to understand why Waste Management’s Adolph was eager to harness Ward 8’s opposition to the site-selection panel’s plan. A similar strategy had served a polluting industry very well in 1987, during the battle against the bottle bill.
“The situation in Precinct 124 was ugly,” recalls activist Phil Pannell, the former chair of the Ward 8 Democrats, in an interview looking back on one of the most expensive and bitter political campaigns in D.C.’s history. “Several young white kids had volunteered to hand out our literature at locations east of the river, but they were surrounded by an angry crowd led by a minister who was screaming at them for being part of a plot to destroy the black community.”
The “plot” was actually one of the most effective steps that the city could have taken to avoid today’s need to build a new trash-transfer station in Ward 8: the 1987 ballot initiative that would have required a 5- or 10-cent refundable deposit on beer and soda bottles.
Deposit laws have been passed in 10 states, including New York, California, and Michigan, which together contain about 30 percent of the nation’s population. Despite intense pressure from the beverage, packaging, and retail industries, which prefer to shift the costs of recycling or litter cleanup to taxpayers, no bottle bill has ever been repealed, partly because such laws dovetail perfectly with curbside recycling programs. According to Seldman, cities with both programs far outpace the District’s current recycling rate of 14 percent: Los Angeles achieves 45 percent, and Rochester, N.Y., is well over 60 percent.
The beverage industry’s own polls showed that 72 percent of District residents supported the idea of returnable bottle deposits, which had been common in the ’50s and ’60s. But industry lobbying had blocked attempts by the D.C. Council to pass a bottle law. With the help of Ralph Nader’s Public Interest Research Group, local environmentalists decided to take the issue directly to the voters in the form of a referendum in the November 1987 election.
“The industry was afraid that a D.C. bottle law would show Congress that the idea was workable nationwide,” says Peter Winch, who was part of the coalition pushing the project. In response to the initiative, the Glass Packaging Institute, the Can Manufacturers of America, Giant Food, Safeway, and the soda and beer companies engaged Matt Reese and Associates, a Rosslyn-based political consulting firm. Reese devised a two-pronged strategy: Create a “positive alternative” to a deposit law and buy a white industry a black face by using a lot of green.
The industry hired two major black consultants—Ed Arnold, who had worked with the Glass Packaging Institute before, and former Council Chair Sterling Tucker. Arnold helped create a voluntary recycling program, placing steel “igloos” for recycling bottles at various churches, which received the proceeds. He also created other recycling centers, which paid much higher than market prices for bottle, cans, and newspapers.
In the months leading up to the November election, the industry spread around nearly $3 million to as many groups as possible. Many of these dollars went to picnics and other church-related events. The industry later ran ads saying, “You can tell a lot about an idea by who’s against it,” and many of the people listed as signatories to the ads were black ministers who had received contributions.
Black media got their share as well. Reed, then a columnist for the Capital Spotlight newspaper, later said in an interview, “I was always very skeptical of these white beer and soda companies, which suddenly started advertising so heavily, but other black media people really believed the promise that it was the start of a whole new partnership.” This seemed a lot better than the environmentalists’ vague arguments in favor of the bottle bill, which they promised would lead to new jobs in the recycling industry. The Rev. Ed Hales noted angrily, “White folks just want to see us scrounging around picking up bottles in the street. We want real jobs.”
Pannell remembers that “things got so hysterical that [one councilmember] was saying the bottle bill was a white plot to give black people AIDS.”
The co-opting of the black community pained the late California Rep. Julian Dixon, who had grown up in D.C. and then chaired the House District of Columbia subcommittee. “Seeing ministers and civil rights leaders say that black folks needed cheap soda more than clean streets was a painful experience,” Dixon remarked in 1989, “but I didn’t get involved because I often told white congressmen D.C. should run its own affairs.” The principle of home rule silenced many black congressman who had seen bottle bills work in their home states.
Some local black activists did support the bottle bill, including Pannell, Lightfoot, and Kevin Chavous (who would later be elected Ward 7 councilmember), but their voices were drowned out in the blizzard of cash. The initiative was defeated 55 percent to 45 percent, losing most heavily in Wards 7 and 8. However, the voluntary recycling programs were unsustainable and the partnership with black businesses barely outlasted the election. And to this day, the District’s streets are littered with many more bottles and cans than streets in cities with bottle bills.
One reason black communities have had such a mixed response to environmental issues is economics. Until quite recently, it was usually industry lobbyists or labor leaders who defined black America’s environmental priorities. During the debate over the bottle bill, local unions also miscalculated their own interests. The bottle bill “would have created jobs for both the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Teamsters at Giant and Safeway, and other jobs in union hotels,” says Winch, now an organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees. “But labor came out against it.” In an interview, Josh Williams, head of the Metropolitan Washington Labor Council, said it was because former AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland believed reusable bottles would hurt the now-defunct Glass Bottle Blowers’ Association. But in fact, the bottle bill did not require reusable bottles.
The civil rights-labor connection is significant. Even though African-Americans suffer high rates of respiratory illnesses and have long lived in areas with bad air pollution, in the mid-’80s the NAACP under Benjamin Hooks opposed federal efforts to raise fuel mileage standards because of that organization’s close ties to the United Auto Workers, which maintained that higher mileage standards would harm American auto jobs. Both the labor and civil rights movements share a critique of capitalism, but not of consumption, fighting for the rights of minorities and working people to get and enjoy as much as they can.
“Just as many white environmentalists aren’t sensitive to justice issues, many black folks don’t have any commitment to the conservation ethic of ‘Reduce, reuse, and recycle,’” observes Ferris. “In the summer, D.C. has Code Red days when children have to stay inside, but some black folks will drive huge SUVs with no shame.”
Moreover, a psychological fear of “dirty work” has led D.C. citizens and black leaders to continuously underestimate the economic potential of recycling industries.
“It was a tragedy when Fort Totten and Benning Road turned away the private haulers,” observes Seldman. “These were overwhelmingly small, black-owned firms who couldn’t compete with the big white companies like Waste Management. We lost nearly 60 local businesses, which employed about 360 people. Now the survivors are getting gouged with the private tipping fees.”
The site-selection panel’s plan for the proposed D.C. Village transfer station includes recycling facilities for autos and construction rubble, both of which would pay good wages. Used bricks, old timbers, and antique window glass, for example, are luxury items that command high prices. Yet the Ward 8 opponents focused on the potential retailing uses for the site—meaning jobs that traditionally pay less than industrial work.
Recycling facilities can have very positive effects on local communities. One of the most efficient recycling programs in the country is operated by Davis Memorial Goodwill Industries on South Dakota Avenue NE. The facility provides cheaper merchandise and far more moral uplift than any conventional discount store.
The figures for 2000 aren’t available yet, but during 1999, in return for a tax break, the greater Washington community supported Goodwill by donating more than 3,000 automobiles, which sold for an average of $535 at its weekly auctions. Because it owns its used-car lot, Goodwill’s expenses are among the lowest in the nation, meaning that up to 94 cents of every dollar goes to support job training. In 1999, the Goodwill car auctions raised $1.5 million to help 1,800 local people with “difficult” employment backgrounds, such as prison records, train for jobs in Goodwill’s computer, building-maintenance, and nursing-assistance programs. Goodwill also recycles tons of used clothing, computers and sporting goods.
Despite Goodwill’s model program for recycling and nonprofit fundraising, its PR director, Joe Davis, says that he’s never received a single call from someone who claimed to represent a black organization or environmental group. “Goodwill in D.C. has pioneered a technique that raises hundreds of millions for charities every year….We already sell cars for one nonprofit, so we would happily welcome a partnership offer from the NAACP or any civil rights group,” he says.
The black establishment has overlooked Goodwill because civil rights activists have little experience with recycling. The environmental establishment overlooks it because greens generally see cars as their sworn enemy, have few roots in D.C., and are more focused on recycling cans than people. Goodwill is an economic, environmental, and social success. Yet if it tried to move its used cars, old furniture, handicapped people, and ex-convicts to D.C. Village or Capitol Hill, the move would probably be denounced as an injustice.
Environmentalists have a mixed track record in setting economic and environmental priorities for the District because some greens hold cultural and aesthetic values far out of sync with those of most African-Americans. For example, some local environmentalists took great pride in stopping the late Jack Kent Cooke from taking over a few acres of parkland to expand RFK Stadium, at least partly because, as Joe Libertelli, founder of the Metro D.C. Environmental Network, notes, “Many greens see football as violent and macho.” Yet this environmental “victory” meant lost jobs and revenues for the District and increased traffic and pollution problems for the region, because Cooke moved his stadium away from the RFK Metro station to Prince George’s County, where it can be reached only by car or shuttle bus.
McDonald, of the African American Environmentalists Association, believes that environmentalists also made a bad choice in 1997 when they opposed the proposed Children’s Island theme park on Kingman and Heritage Islands in the Anacostia River. “I had several conversations with D.C. greens who just hated the idea because it was ‘just too Disney,’” McDonald says. “But I believe theme parks are a legitimate way to preserve open spaces and create sustainable jobs.”
McDonald’s disagreements with mainstream environmentalists are not surprising. In the early ’90s, environmentalists of color coined the term “environmental justice movement” specifically because their environmental, moral, and economic priorities often conflicted with those of both white environmentalists and black businesspeople. To see how complicated these conflicts can be, consider the failed attempt to build a private prison in Ward 8’s Oxon Cove, just a stone’s throw from the D.C. Village impound lot.
Ever since 1997, when the Lorton reformatory was slated for closure—a process that will be completed this year—D.C. inmates have been exported across the country. As black legal theorist Lani Guinier recently argued in Essence magazine, this process helps inflate the economies, census counts, and political clout of some of the most racist rural towns in the South and West, where many private prisons are built—and some D.C. prisoners end up.
A new prison in D.C. would have affirmed many African-American ideals of criminal justice. The Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers, and many others have long argued that black prisoners should be housed in their local black communities. Moreover, the rehabilitation of black prisoners is a major local political priority, as a strong majority of Ward 8 voters made clear when they voted for Barry, first as their councilmember and then as mayor, after he got out of prison on drug charges. Bringing inmates home, advocates reason, could speed their redemption by exposing them to the healing embrace of black churches and the types of prison educational programs that were created by the University of the District of Columbia (UDC).
A local prison also would have supported many tenets of the national Green Party, which calls for “community-based solutions” to crime and “restorative justice”—which is almost impossible when the victim and the perpetrator are hundreds or thousands of miles apart. Prisons are also a “green” source of relatively well-paying jobs. A thousand or so inmates generate far less noise, traffic, air pollution, and solid waste than 100 private homes or a shopping mall.
The biggest advantage of a local prison would have been to allow countless D.C. children to visit their incarcerated fathers.
But the idea was killed by a coalition of environmentalists and Ward 8 activists that involved many of the same people fighting the trash transfer station. Some of the local residents who supported the prison as a way to bring their loved ones home believed that it was the involvement of the national white environmental groups that tipped the balance against them (just as environmentalists believed that the black ministers tipped the scales on the bottle bill). No one said, “We’re against reuniting black families.” Some said, “I don’t care about those thugs,” or “I’m against the prison-industrial complex.” But most prison opponents offered some version of “It might be a good idea, just not right here.” D.C. Statehood Green Party spokesperson Steve Donkin noted, “I grew up close to the famous Sing Sing Prison in upstate New York, so I know prisons don’t usually have a terrible impact on the neighbors. But Oxon Cove is one of the few places in Ward 8 where the community has access to the waterfront.”
“The reason putting a prison in Oxon Cove was unfair,” Kinlow said last summer, “was because no other site in the whole city was ever seriously considered. If that’s not dumping, then ask [D.C. Congressional Delegate] Eleanor Holmes Norton to explain her statement on WAMU radio, when she said that if the prison wasn’t going to be in Ward 8, she wouldn’t even consider supporting one anywhere else.”
Kinlow said he envisioned Ward 8’s becoming a vibrant neighborhood like Capitol Hill or Brookland, an attractive place with more homes, restaurants, and shopping. “But I saw a pattern,” he said, “that starts with the pollution of the Anacostia and extends to D.C. Village always being the place to put things like a prison, a homeless shelter, a trash-transfer station.”
Contrary to the arguments of Ward 8 opponents, the presence of such facilities in a community does not necessarily deter shopping, restaurants, or homeownership. Capitol Hill has a transfer station in the 1300 block of 1st Street SE, and there is a large jail near D.C. General Hospital, on the far end of the Hill. Brookland has D.C.’s largest transfer station, the Luke Moore Academy for troubled youth, and Anchor Mental Health Association, which services mentally handicapped people. Yet both neighborhoods are hot real estate markets. Some argue that Ward 8 itself had more vitality and better shopping several decades ago, when D.C. Village was still being put to use as a locked juvenile treatment facility—in other words, a prison.
With creative leadership from the mayor’s office or the D.C. Council, the city could have had an acceptable prison at the D.C. Village site without investing much of its own money. The presumptive builder, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), had a large economic incentive to show that it could operate a showcase facility in a black urban area, and CCA officials hinted that they would have accepted a union. It wouldn’t have been hard to preserve waterfront access. And, because the real issue was equity, Ward 8 might have accepted the deal if it had been sweetened with a supermarket and movie theater, and accompanied by an educational campaign emphasizing that a prison is a dump only if you consider prisoners to be trash rather than humans. Barry tried to make that last point, but he was dismissed as merely a paid lobbyist for the CCA.
Negotiating such a deal would have involved a leader who understood business development, local black politics, and environmental issues, and was trusted by all the parties involved.
The ideal person to help negotiate an equitable solution to such siting decisions might be a senior black activist in a strong D.C. environmental group. Unfortunately, there are no really powerful local black environmental groups. The New Columbia Chapter of the Sierra Club has substantial black participation and leadership, but hasn’t reached the kind of critical mass that translates into political clout. Despite the visibility of the D.C. Statehood Green Party, environmentalists per se have no formal representation on the D.C.Council.
One reason for this situation is organizational. “It’s been a terribly hard struggle trying to keep a black environmental group alive,” says McDonald. “National white organizations can get grants for environmental-justice projects in black communities easier than we can. And when it comes to black donors and volunteers, it’s hard to compete with the NAACP or Urban League.”
McDonald wants to be involved in the trash issue, but he says he didn’t have time to get to the meetings because he had to concentrate on making a living. Most white environmental activists either are paid by organizations or can volunteer because they have other jobs or independent wealth.
Ferris has encountered a similar problem. “I really want to work with more local community groups,” she says, “but I’m not rich, and they usually expect you to do it pro bono.”
“Keeping a D.C. environmental group alive isn’t just hard for black activists,” says Libertelli, who now recruits activists at the UDC law school. “Most environmentalists with talent get pulled into national or city politics.”
This absence of local black environmental leadership is ironic given that former D.C. Congressional Delegate the Rev. Walter Fauntroy was one of the founding heroes of the environmental justice movement. Fauntroy was jailed in 1982 during protests over the siting of a toxic landfill in a black North Carolina community. Afterward, he asked the General Accounting Office (GAO) to study the South’s toxic-waste dumps, leading to a landmark 1983 GAO report that confirmed that race, not income or environmental suitability, was the biggest factor in siting incinerators, lead smelters, and other polluting facilities. However, Fauntroy probably didn’t think of himself as an environmentalist but saw this as an extension of his civil rights work. He was largely silent on the bottle bill.
The difficulties with local environmental organizing may also partly be due to the fortunate fact that the District is relatively clean. “I’ve just come back from years of battling a petrochemical company in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, where the sky is choked with toxins,” says Greenpeace’s Smith. “People there know they have to fight, because regulators let companies poison black communities with impunity.”
D.C.’s most serious environmental problem is air pollution. But it’s easier to mobilize people around specific sites such as a transfer station than to go door to door trying to persuade suburbanites to embrace carpooling. The District has far fewer serious Superfund sites than many industrial cities. And, even though Our Unfair Share says that the Benning Road plant produces more pollution than many other local sources combined, it also points out that 85 percent of the District’s air pollution is transportation-related, primarily due to cars. The most acute air pollution source closest to the city is Ronald Reagan National Airport; airports are exempt from many pollution standards.
Throughout the trash-transfer-station controversy, the term “environmental injustice” has been used to describe disparate phenomena such as the odors from Blue Plains, the attempt to build a private prison, and the siting of a trash-transfer station, but it doesn’t help to confuse these things. Last November, D.C. Inspector General Charles Maddox declared that Blue Plains has handled dangerous chemicals so poorly that it has sometimes been a threat to public health and worker safety. That’s an environmental injustice. The prison could have been a creative project to actually help the community. The transfer station would be a carefully thought-out use of public property for public purposes.
It’s counterproductive to mislabel every difficult choice as an environmental injustice, because overheated rhetoric makes it harder for politicians to compromise.
For example, because of his work on the bottle bill and the fight against the PEPCO plant, Chavous has a reputation for understanding environmental matters. Yet he recently led a demonstration against the site-selection panel’s plan because it calls for keeping the Benning Road transfer station in his ward open as a recycling facility.
So what is a real environmental injustice? The EPA’s Coleman-Adebayo believes that an environmental injustice has to contain some substantial threat to public health. McDonald has developed a five-item checklist to help make the determination about any particular project: Are there significant emissions? Does it promote sprawl? Is there racism involved? If it has emissions, are there positive social or economic tradeoffs? And if there are emissions, are they primarily threats to human health? The last question, he notes, is tricky: “Storm-water runoff carries oil and pesticides into the Chesapeake Bay, but it’s primarily a threat to fish.”
Poor management often leads to environmental injustice. McDonald carried out a water-conservation contract several years ago after it was discovered that D.C.’s public housing was using about twice as much water per resident as private apartments because neither management nor tenants placed a high priority on replacing rubber washers in faucets and gaskets in toilets. “After Metro, the largest single user of electricity in D.C. is Blue Plains,” McDonald notes, “so the wasted water was also consuming electricity, causing air pollution, and increasing chlorine use.”
Libertelli notes that achieving environmental justice may mean not banning all LULUs, but properly compensating or protecting those who are adversely affected. “Perhaps the people close to transfer stations should receive whole-house air filters or free air conditioning,” he says. This type of thinking might help to resolve the Tenleytown tower controversy. One of the main concerns expressed by nearby residents is the fear that their homes would be damaged by falling chunks of ice. If that fear is truly unrealistic, then it should be inexpensive for the tower’s owners to reassure its neighbors by buying an insurance policy to pay for any damage.
“Of course, there must be a fair process for siting everything,” says Smith. “Maybe there is a better place for a transfer station or prison in Ward 3, or 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, or 7. But that is only a short-term solution. Black folks can never win this by saying, ‘Put it where the white folks are,’ or vice versa. We’ve got to demand clean manufacturing, total recycling, and an end to a consumer mentality that produces so many toxins and criminals. Environmental justice means a lot more than just saying no.” CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Darrow Montgomery.