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Residents of Ward 6’s Near Northeast neighborhood have been complaining for over five years about the USA Waste trash-transfer station at 1140 Third St. NE. The trucks from the facility make a racket, they say, and the garbage they leave behind stinks. Residents of Ward 5’s Brentwood neighborhood have voiced the same gripes about the Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI) facility at 1220 W St. NE. And so have neighbors near the Waste Management Inc. station at 2160 Queens Chapel Rd. NE.
The authority to act on those complaints has sparked a war between Ward 6 Councilmember Sharon Ambrose and D.C. Council Chair Linda Cropp. In December, Ambrose, a Democrat, campaigned for the chairmanship of the council’s Public Works Committee, a post from which she could direct a citywide crackdown on facilities like those operated by USA Waste and BFI.
Cropp torpedoed Ambrose’s bid, handing the committee to Republican At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz on the curious logic that seniority trumps party affiliation in the assignment of committee positions. Ambrose ended up heading the council’s committee on consumer and regulatory affairs.
If Congress followed Cropp’s leadership model, Barney Frank might now be an impeachment manager.
Cropp and Ambrose bumped heads again in the first legislative meeting of the council’s 13th session. At issue was jurisdiction over amendments to a pending bill on transfer-station permits. Since the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) administers the permits, and she oversees that agency now, Ambrose argued, the legislation belonged in her in-box. Cropp vetoed the appeal, ruling that Schwartz has the final say on all trash-transfer legislation.
Frustrations over committee jurisdiction have pushed Ambrose to the point of ad feminam attacks: “Linda appears very adamant that she doesn’t want me dealing with environmental issues, which I find understandable, because on the two biggest environmental issues the council has dealt withthe convention center and trash-transfer stationsLinda has supported those people whose actions I said were environmentally irresponsible.”
If nothing else, the Ambrose-Cropp fracas marks the rise of garbage as a political issue in the District. No other controversy, after all, encapsulates the ’90s notion of environmental injustice as cleanly as trash-transfer stations. On one side are predominantly black, low- to moderate-income neighborhoods, and on the other are those who pollute them: fat-cat outsiders and conglomerates like BFI and Waste Management Inc.
The fight over transfer stations has also gained in profile thanks to the city’s bungled efforts over the past six years to deal with them. Ever since the stations began popping up, in the early ’90s, the city has tried to close them outright or regulate them into extinction. At the end of its attempts lies a docket of unfavorable court rulings and injunctions that have kept seven transfer stations humming citywide, all of them in Northeast and Southeast.
Despite the efforts of Ambrose, Schwartz, and newly installed Ward 5 Councilmember Vincent Orange, relief for transfer-station neighbors may be yearsand several pieces of legislationaway. Like the prostitutes whose activities infuriate other neighborhoods, the trash industry has the savvy and the money to defy governmental regulation, and it offers a service in great demand.
The latest glitch in the city’s campaign against the stations came on Jan. 14, when control board Executive Director John Hill initially rejected two pieces of council legislation governing site selection and location. Together, the bills would have required a 500-foot buffer between transfer stations and other properties and created a panel to search for appropriate sites in the city.
The council had expected little resistance from Hill. After all, the 500-foot buffer had been enacted previously under temporary legislation, and running the volunteer panel would have cost the city $150,000 at most. However, Hill cited insufficient “fiscal impact statements” in both bills and asked that the council resubmit them. Hill’s objections forced a lapse in the 500-foot rule and suspension of the moratorium on new transfer-station licenses throughout the city.
After angry calls from Ambrose and Schwartz, the control board signed off on the bills and saved the council from having to enact yet another piece of emergency legislation to keep its laws on the books. “I’m furious with the control board,” said Ambrose. “We constantly have to do emergency legislation because they sit on the bills.”
Transfer-station opponents speculate that something more malevolent than bureaucratic lethargy accounts for the legislation’s extended stay at the control board. Control board staffers are high on the list of contacts for superlobbyist David Wilmot, a longtime representative for D.C.’s vested interests who has worked the waste industry’s agenda at city hall.
But although the garbage lobby may have failed in striking down the bill at the control board junction, it is seizing other opportunities to dump on it. Last year, proprietors of the USA Waste transfer station filed suit in D.C. Superior Court, challenging the legality of the regulatory scheme.
The suit attacks the council’s 500-foot stipulation, which is based on a similar regulation in Prince George’s County. The buffer zone would separate the transfer facilities not only from houses but from any facility whatsoever, whether it be a warehouse, a poultry dealer, or an abattoir. “You’d have to buy up 27 acres of land to operate a transfer station,” said public relations executive Art Schultz, who has flacked for the waste industry. “The fundamental problem is that there’s probably not a piece of land in the District of Columbia that’s 500 feet from anything.”
LL, an expert on District geography, came up with three right off the top of his head: the Mall, Fort Dupont Park, and the atrium of the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center.
Waste-industry operators will also be irate at the bill’s exclusion of local transfer-station operators from the panel charged with site selection. The panel has seats for three regular District residents, as well as experts on environmental health, neighborhood economic development, and land-use planning, but there’s no place at the table for affected business owners. With that lineup, the panel should have no problem finding appropriate sitesin Maryland and Virginiato digest the city’s 1.2 million tons of annual trash output.
Provisions like the buffer zone and the site-selection panel codify the enmity of the D.C. Council’s reformist wing toward the transfer stationsan emotion that springs from a heap of shared experience. Former Ward 5 Councilmember Harry Thomas once called the industry’s leaders a bunch of “bandits” who had sneaked onto his turf “like a thieves in the night” and bribed city regulators to leave them alone.
And then there’s the stench. A January D.C. government report outlined 20-odd odor and health violations racked up by the stations last year. “The public has spoken clearly on this: They want the transfer stations out,” said Ambrose.
Of course, in the past, transfer-station owners have used what they call the city’s vendetta to their advantage. Back in 1994, the District staged a highly publicized raid of the Northeast Distribution Center on Queens Chapel Road NE, one of the city’s first transfer stations. As inspectors issued citations against the facility, officials from the Department of Public Works (DPW) high-fived in the parking lot.
Weeks later, D.C. Superior Court Judge Zinora Mitchell-Rankin voided the action and ruled that it was part of an unconstitutional scheme to funnel the trash trade to the Lorton municipal dump, where the city collects a surcharge on all private garbage. Ever since then, the city has been scrambling to put a defensible regulatory framework in place.
A glance back at D.C.’s trash-transfer history suggests that if neighbors of the transfer sites can blame the city for failing to regulate the facilities, they can also blame it for creating them. A decade ago, there were no private trash-transfer stations in the city. Commercial trash haulers, who pick up 75 percent of the city’s waste, dropped their loads for a reasonable charge at municipal facilities such as the Benning Road incinerator and the Fort Totten transfer station. But under the ancient D.C. law of nature, the facilities crumbled under negligent management. Private transfer stations popped up in their place, sparing haulers the 30-mile round trip to Lorton.
The transfer-station boom hit other cities just as suddenly as it engulfed the District. None of them have so far come up with a magic formula for regulating the sites. The politically attractive option is just to kick the rubbish out. Medieval cities just hauled their refuse downwind from their walls and left it to rot. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s logic holds that the hordes of tourists coming to view his city’s cultural treasures should be reciprocated with the shipment of Gotham City garbage to far-flung landfills.
It’s no different for District leaders. The formula embodied in the current council legislationexiling the stations to neighboring stateswould finally clear the air in host neighborhoods.
Just as likely, though, the bill would prompt a long court battle fueled by multi-million-dollar corporations. And if it achieved its unstated purpose, it could also double the cost of trash disposal for the average District residenta prospect that’s also worthy of a special panel.
BRAZIL’S STAFF DEFECTION
The new council session has presented At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil with more responsibility than he’s ever had as a public servant. Brazil inherited the council’s Judiciary Committee from Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans. The panel’s current docket includes an open file of initiatives on police training, criminal sentencing, and the ever-prickly question of funding levels for the police and fire departments.
A few weeks into the session, the rumor among Brazil’s colleagues is that he doesn’t have the staff to handle the job. Some have even suggested that the councilmember has no staff at all.
In a call to Brazil’s office, LL was able to discount the scurrilous rumors. Someone picked up the phone confirming the existence of a receptionist. The receptionist passed LL along to press secretary Mike Morgan, who confirmed that he was the press secretary for Brazil. “Well, I’m here,” he said.
And Morgan silenced forever all speculation about the councilmember’s skeleton staff. “We could use a couple more people, but we’re operating every day,” he said. And could you provide LL with a list of current staffers? “No, I don’t think I should do that,” said Morgan.
Working through anonymous and expertly cultivated sources deep within the council, LL has learned that Brazil aide Jim Abley is handling the councilmember’s Judiciary Committee work and that other staffers may be on the payroll as well. The identity of those staffers will be the subject of an ongoing LL investigation.
JACK IN THE BOX
In last September’s Democratic mayoral primary, Evans reaped a measly 22 percent of the vote in his Ward 2 base and a scary 19 percent in his home precinct. Weakness invites predators, as Evans is now discovering.
Convention center opponent Beth Solomon this week announced the formation of an exploratory committee to oust Evans from the seat he has held since 1991 in the next election, two years from now. “Obviously, the neighborhoods of Ward 2 have lost their trust in their current councilmember,” said Solomon.
To restore the ward’s neighborhoods and its trust in elected leaders, Solomon is aiming to collect a robust $80,000 in campaign cash. Although she may be long on sincerity, she appears a bit short on political realism: Her stance on the convention center should secure her a lifetime ban from the corporate cash required to reach her goal. “That’s why I’m starting so early,” counters Solomon.
Solomon’s lack of demonstrated successesher high-profile campaigns against the convention center and on behalf of Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin Chavous’ mayoral bid both, after all, failedwill, in a political campaign, be made up for with true-believer nobility. Just as the Yankee victory at Appomattox ensured Robert E. Lee generations of lost-cause worshipers, the convention center’s triumph at 441 4th St. will shroud a Solomon campaign in martyr’s clothing. The past campaigns of citizen-crusaders like Dorothy Brizill and Marie Drissel have provided no evidence that righteousness is a ticket to local office, but a mantle of lost causes sure helps with that staple of D.C. political discourse: “I told you so.”
Evans declined to dignify Solomon’s effort with a comment on her prospects. “I’m very focused on the Finance and Revenue Committee and working with the new mayor. I really like representing Ward 2,” said the councilmember. And Evans dismissed talk of his vulnerability in the ward with an elegant breakdown of his showing in the mayoral contest. “I generally get about 3,500 votes in the ward races, and in the mayor’s race, I got 3,000 votes in the ward,” said Evans. “So what [then-candidate Anthony A. Williams] did was to get people who normally don’t vote to vote for him.”
That’s called politics.CP
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