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Ward 8 residents fight Blue Plains incinerator

(Published June 5, 2000)


Staff Writer

Citizens testifying before a city health commission May 24 about possible health problems related to the Blue Plains sewage treatment plant had their point made crystal clear by Ward 8 resident Myra Riggs.

She had an asthma attack during the hearing.

About 15 residents of the District’s southernmost neighborhoods appeared before the D.C. Environmental Health Agency to voice their complaints about the quality of the air and water around Blue Plains and health problems they say are caused by the operations of the plant in their neighborhood. The hearing was held to decide whether to renew Blue Plains’ license for its incinerator.

"It was so ironic that it would happen (while) talking to the people that we’re fighting against," Riggs said. She said she developed asthma about two years after she moved to the ward in 1980. At the time she was living at Bolling Air Force base and working at the Naval Research Laboratory, which is adjacent to the sewage treatment plant.

"I’m feeling that between living on the base and working at the Naval Research Lab and now living at the Wingate (apartments on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SW, across from Blue Plains), it’s really affected my health," Riggs said.

Residents in the area have been complaining for years not only about the odors emanating from the plant but also about the health problems they say they’ve developed because of their proximity to the plant, which is operated by the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority. Now, community activist and Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Robin Ijames is trying to get real proof that the plant is adversely affecting the health of its neighbors.

She has gotten a group of doctors from George Washington University interested in conducting a study to determine the health effects of the plant on the surrounding area. She has been actively seeking a funding source for the study.

"Every resident that I had talked to had some sort of health problem or someone in their family had some sort of health problem that they believed came from breathing the air that comes out of Blue Plains," Ijames said.

She said she also suffered two upper respiratory infections last year that required her to be hospitalized. Although she said her doctors were unable to determine the source of her ailments, she’s convinced the sewage treatment plant and its operations caused them.

"The bottom line is, we want to find out what kind of chemicals they use in there so that we can find out what sort of health problems they’re causing us," Ijames said.

Dr. John Balbus, a professor of environmental and occupational health at George Washington University, said there is very little data about the health effects of sewage treatment plants on the surrounding neighborhoods. In particular, he said he would be interested in studying the rates of cancer and asthma to see if they are higher in the area.

"We’re trying to address a community concern and get the information about the health problems (in the area)," Balbus said.

Balbus said some potential irritants from the plant would be the sulfur compounds that cause the air to smell like rotten eggs around the plant and chlorine, which the plant uses to treat sewage.

While Ijames and Balbus search for funding for a comprehensive study, Ijames has recruited a group of neighbors to volunteer to conduct a health survey of the area. Walking door-to-door, the five volunteers have been trying to do a census-style survey of the health of the area’s residents. The survey would serve as a basis for any future study, she said.

Riggs, who is known as the "pie lady" to her neighbors because she bakes to supplement her disability payments, said people seem willing to overlook the potential health hazard the plant presents because it lies in the poorest ward in the city.

"Somebody has to explain (the potential health threat) to us," Riggs said. "Don’t look at us like we’re the poor black people over here and no one has to pay attention to us. We pay our taxes, we’re citizens."

Longtime resident Clinton Cobb agreed that greater public access to information about the plant’s operations is long overdue.

"We need some answers — the community, the whole city needs some answers," Cobb said. "All we get from Water and Sewer Authority is the bill."

In the meantime, the residents that showed up at the Environmental Health Agency’s hearing last month know they made an impression on the panel. Agency officials chose to postpone for 90 days any action concerning Blue Plains’ incinerator permit to allow both sides more time to gather and present further information.

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator