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Brentwood Residents Say Their Air Stinks, but It May Just Be the Smell of Life in the Big City

Ruth Wilson and I are standing outside her Northeast Washington home sniffing the air. We inhale deeply, chests swelling, nostrils flaring. I don’t smell anything.

“You can’t smell that?” she asks with considerable incredulity.

“Not a thing.”

“Like a…a gasoline kind of smell?”

Well, maybe a faint eau d’essence. There is, after all, a major street—Brentwood Road—not far from her 13th Street NE home.

But the retired reading specialist smells something more menacing: “all different kinds of carcinogenic material” being brought to a large green building a few hundred feet behind her street. The building houses a garbage-transfer station—an operation that collects trash from garbage trucks, packs it into 18-wheelers, and hauls it off to the middle of nowhere (or rural Virginia, whichever comes first).

Since the facility opened in 1993 Wilson says she and her neighbors haven’t been able to sit on the porch on warm days, open their windows at night, or even walk from their front doors to their cars without getting a noseful of human waste, rotting food, hospital debris, and all manner of District detritus.

“Oh, it’s awful,” says Wilson, 69, wrinkling her nose under her large glasses. “Just terrible.”

Her neighbors agree, and together they’ve written copious letters to everyone from front-line District environmental regulators to President Clinton, made hundreds of phone calls, and even brought an expensive lawsuit against Consolidated Waste Industries, the company that ran the facility. (The property is still owned by CWI but today is managed by Houston-based waste giant BFI.) Last year, the Washington Times and WRC-TV featured Wilson and her neighbors in sympathetic stories.

But nothing has changed. The neighbors lost the lawsuit. The media coverage fell flat. The Environmental Protection Agency has no regulations for odors. And the District—well, it performed as usual: Wilson says her councilmember, Harry Thomas, won’t return her calls. No one has told her about any tests of the air for violations of the city’s odor ordinance—an expansive regulation preventing all “odorous or other air pollutants,” including those that meet the highly subjective standard of “interfer[ence] with the reasonable enjoyment of life.” And the city has repeatedly bungled its efforts to regulate the trash-transfer stations.

At first blush, then, Wilson’s situation seems simple: It stinks. “This house is all I have,” she says. And she says the house smells like a dump.

But if you nose around her story long enough, a more complex fragrance emerges. Noses, as Wilson and I are discovering this chilly December day, are different. She smells shit. I smell city.

In fact, I’m surprised that her home doesn’t smell like the New Jersey Turnpike, considering all the odor-producing sources nearby: the trash-transfer station, Brentwood Road, an asphalt factory, the city’s salt-storage facility, the District’s impound lot, and giant mounds of debris from city street repairs. But all I can sense is…barbecue, floating redolently from Levi’s, the popular Ward 5 restaurant in the lot adjacent to the transfer station.

City inspectors who test for odors—there are two such inspectors—have issued the facility a clean bill of smell. “We have inspected [the transfer station],” says William Gillespie, chief of the compliance branch of the city’s Air Resources Management Division. “We feel that that site is one of the better at controlling odors. They have odorants installed, [and] they have a ventilation system to draw the air out of the back of the building. It’s crude, but it shows they are making efforts.”

BFI officials boast that their facility doesn’t accept the rankest garbage—fish parts, for instance. And they offered me a tour of their station to point out the various misting deodorants and spraying devices they employ. “We think the system we have is an excellent one,” says a company manager. Indeed, even after 12 formal inspections since Jan. 1, 1995—the last one just seven weeks ago—the District has never issued an “odor violation” to the BFI facility.

So do Wilson and her neighbors have peculiar noses? Are their odors all in their heads? Or, to ask a more Zen question, can one person’s stench be another person’s everyday urban aroma?

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For years, the city tried to stay out of the odor-judgment business. It delegated the dirty work to something called the Barnebey-Cheney Scentometer. The scentometer is a Plexiglas box with two plastic tubes protruding from its top. To use it, inspectors placed the tubes into their nostrils—I’m not making this up—and walked around holding the box, which is approximately 9 inches long, 5 inches wide, and 3 inches tall.

By adjusting strips of masking tape on the box, they could draw air in, filter part of it, and allow another part to go directly up their noses. Then they could compare the filtered air with the natural air, and by some infinitely complicated yet totally unreliable procedure, arrive at a rating. If the rating was a “1,” they issued a ticket.

“In my view, and I’m a technical person, a chemist, it’s really laughable,” says Gillespie, who issues odor tickets for a living. He and his inspectors stopped using the device years ago because of its obvious deficiency: It still relies on the inspector’s subjective sense of smell to determine a rating. By the 1980s, few other jurisdictions around the country were using the ’60s-era gadgets.

No one questioned the precision of the city’s new odor-measuring instrument—the old-fashioned human snout. If a resident complained, an inspector would sniff around and decide whether to issue a violation. Companies paid their fines—a paltry $50 for the first offense—and then tried to keep their noses clean.

But in late 1993, trash-transfer stations like the one in Wilson’s neighborhood began cropping up across the city. The stations filled up quickly with garbage from the fleets of private haulers who had recently been shut out of the District’s crumbling transfer station at Fort Totten. Today, seven transfer facilities operate in D.C.

Residents began to grumble. Whether the transfer stations were truly rank or only slightly smelly, they did symbolize a neighborhood going south. Even if the stations didn’t assault the nose, they surely assaulted a community’s dignity.

Gillespie’s phones lit up with complaints. For a while, his office had too many gripes to investigate (they try to inspect every complaint), but they did discover that some of the stations did in fact reek. So the city began issuing a great many tickets, particularly in early 1994.

One of the worst offenders was the transfer station at 2160 Queens Chapel Rd. NE, that one owned by a company called Northeast Distribution Center (NDC). On May 24, 1994, after nearly a month of protest, Gillespie himself investigated and “smelled strong objectionable odors on the sidewalk.” He wrote a $50 ticket. The company didn’t pay, and the city issued another ticket, and another and another—11 in all, Gillespie thinks.

The tickets triggered a lengthy legal battle between NDC and the city. NDC won: Its lawyer persuaded an administrative law judge to rule in August 1994 that the city had used an improper device—Gillespie’s nose—to measure the foul odor. After all, the D.C. Municipal Regulations (Title 20, Section 903.2) mandated the use of the Barnebey-Cheney Scentometer.

With obvious distaste, Gillespie calls this “legal maneuvering,” but no doubt NDC was right. (Its lawyer didn’t return a phone call.) Since then, the D.C. Council has expunged the Scentometer requirement from the books.

Today, the transfer stations hover in an uneasy truce with nearby residents like Wilson and the city. The city recently ticketed 2160 Queens Chapel Rd. (which is now under different ownership), but most of the stations, according to Gillespie, have reduced their odorous emissions. D.C. has given the stations interim permits to operate while city officials determine how to set tight air-quality standards. For their part, the stations pay city fees to secure their interim permits.

“These businesses sort of snuck in and converted to trash-transfer sort of overnight,” says Craig Pascal, general counsel for Councilmember Thomas. “We are getting more educated at what we are permitted to do [to regulate them] according to the law.”

But some say the hazy legal status of the stations reeks of wrongdoing and conspiracy. Wilson, for instance, notes that “mysterious deaths” have occurred on her street. “Don’t talk too loud,” she says as we discuss the deaths in her living room.

And a crusading odor-fighting lawyer, Myles Glasgow, has filed a nuisance lawsuit against the new owners of 2160 Queens Chapel. A judge refused to issue an injunction against the transfer station, and efforts to settle the lawsuit have thus far failed. Glasgow thinks that a trial wouldn’t begin until next year at the earliest.

In the meantime, Glasgow produces reams of material on odors and all manner of garbage-related issues. One 34-page opus warns of disease that results from handling garbage and from the diesel exhaust from the hundreds of garbage trucks pouring into and out of transfer stations. Wilson has a copy of Glasgow’s report, though she’s worried that sharing it with her neighbors will frighten them. “I’ve only shown this to two people,” she says.

Wilson attributes nearly all her neighborhood’s problems to the BFI facility—cracking retaining walls, pothole-ridden streets, low property values. “Now our houses are too old and cracked up to sell,” she laments.

Indeed, what’s really at the heart of Wilson’s complaint isn’t odors. It’s poverty. An army of city inspectors, councilmembers, and environmentalists couldn’t renovate her run-down neighborhood. “That property has been zoned commercial for a million years, and those homes have been there for a million years,” says Pascal. “I don’t want to be insensitive, but that’s just what the neighborhood is.”

—John Cloud