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D.C. sanitation inspector Tom Day smells trouble. Standing at the entrance of an alley behind the CVS on Columbia Road NW, Day knows fat rats and musty debris are only a few paces away.
He just can’t see them because the pharmacy has erected an iron gate locking down the strip. After getting the adjacent building’s superintendent to open the gate, Day takes a few steps and hits paydirt. The alley has become CVS’s own landfilla forest of plastic bottles, metal grills, matchbooks, a giant plastic Magnivision eyewear display case, rat holes, rat turds, and a layer of brown mush. There are no dumpsters or garbage cans. Day treads through the muck carrying a Polaroid. “Let me take a picture,” he says.
CVS’s Chinatown store is even more prime for a sanitation photo op. Behind the outlet’s storage gate, Day finds a napkin smeared with feces left by a squatter. On his last visit, he says, he encountered piles of shit, crack vials, mattresses, used condoms, more convenience-store trash, and plenty of denials from CVS. Store managers claimed they didn’t know people were living
in their own storage area but vowed to tidy up.
“It’s like a cat and mouse game,” Day says of his wars with CVS. “When you’re there, they jump. When you leave, they fall by the wayside. CVS seems to be a very arrogant company. They are way up in Rhode Island. They seem to see stores in D.C. as a reserve for money.”
Then again, D.C. has come to see CVS as a source of cash as wellwith abundant fines levied with stunning regularity. On this Tuesday afternoon, the inspector will repeat his rigmarolestopping at CVS stores, spotting sanitation violations, and snapping picturesabout a half-dozen times. Whether it’s along Georgia Avenue NW or Columbia Road, there is always a hulking pile of trash stinking up an alley or besmirching a street corner.
With its roughly 50 outlets in the District, CVS has emerged as a beta test for the city’s litter laws. For years, Department of Public Works (DPW) inspectors like Day attempted to shame alley polluters with feeble $50 and $75 finesusually less than the charges for hauling the trash away. But in 1996, the D.C. Council passed legislation hiking fines for repeat commercial offenders to $2,000. According to Day, several CVS outlets have violated the sanitation code frequently enough to qualify for the heightened sanctions. Neighbors are hoping that the growing pile of fines will force the serial scofflaw into cleaning up its act.
Once a week, Phil Carney walks from his apartment building to the CVS on the corner of 17th and P Streets NW. He then asks the store manager to clean up around the dumpster and the trash abutting the property. It is a routine that Carney, a member of the Dupont Circle Civic Association (DCCA), knows well. He has been pestering the 17th Street CVS to clean up its act for years. Carney has written protest letters to the chain’s headquarters in Woonsocket, R.I., documented the outlet’s sanitation violations, made calls to the district manager once a week, and even swept up the alley himself. “We keep waiting and waiting and waiting,” he says. “Show us the results…. Every time I say something or call, it’s ‘We’ll take care of the
problem,’ and it never happens.”
A visit to the problem area on a Saturday afternoon in late December turns up a dumpster with trash all around it (but not in it), plus McDonald’s wrappers, soda bottles, and
a rubber glove scattered along the alley. At night, there are enough rats frolicking around the
CVS and adjacent restaurant dumpsters to start a medical lab.
In 1995, DCCA board member Margaret Young mailed CVS a picture of a dead rat next to its dumpster. CVS responded by sending a vice president to tour the alley with DCCA officials and clean up the PR stench. The meeting produced a few weeks of cleanliness, some flower boxes, tree boxes, and a commitment to empty the public trash receptacle on the corner. But while DPW has made sure residents are cleaning up after their dogs and restaurants’ grease containers are kept closed, the store’s managers continue treating the alley like a landfill.
Groves says the store’s record on trash reads like an environmental EKGlong periods of slovenliness interrupted by occasional cleanups. “Somehow, the information has to be funneled in [to headquarters] that this is a neighborhood where businesses and residents cohabit. Part of their responsibility is to protect the neighborhood, because we are the customers.”
The problem, Day explains, is that every time he finds litter violations at CVS stores, he ends up scolding a different employee. CVS rotates its workers constantly; once you’ve convinced a manager that trash is best kept in dumpsters, the company transfers him or her to Virginia.
Whatever the cause, CVS managers are by now familiar with DPW litter tickets. Last year, the 17th and P outlet received 13 fines, and it was hit last Thursday with its first $2,000 fine, according to Day. The Chinatown branchat 7th and H Streets NWwas fined $300 last week, its fourth citation in two months; one more infraction will qualify the store for the $2,000 club. And in the past two years, the Columbia Road store has been fined 16 times. (The store’s landlord has received most of those fines.) In all, Day says, CVS outlets in D.C. have been nailed around 100 times for sanitation violations during the past year. “They need to hire a maintenance crew for their stores,” says Day.
Corporate execs deny any companywide indifference to cleanliness. “Managers try to make sure the areas are cleaned, and we believe that they are doing that in the D.C. area,” says Joan Cronin, a CVS spokesperson. “In terms of our stores, we absolutely want to maintain our stores, not just for our customers, but for our neighbors. We believe that we are doing that.”
Cronin should check a bit more closely. After getting Day’s most recent citation, John Dindlebeck, manager of the Columbia Road CVS, inspects the trash loading dock behind the store. He blames the mess on employees who don’t take pride in their work. And he says that most employees don’t stay at the outlet for more than three weeksthe trash outlasts them.
“We’re going to take care of all this anyway,” says Dindlebeck. “I’ll be out here a lot more often….I didn’t mean to blow it off entirely.” CP