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Tackling D.C. trash

Panel chief: City must ‘correct’ residential-area transfer sites

(Published October 9, 2000)


Staff Writer

The chairman of a special panel that’s preparing to make its recommendations for how the city should deal with its trash says D.C. zoning laws must be revised and comprehensive planning must be done to ensure that residents aren’t forced in the future to live in close proximity to noxious garbage-handling operations.

"We have to correct the results of insensitive placements of trash transfer stations in the past," Dorn McGrath, chairman of the advisory body told The Common Denominator during a recent telephone interview about the panel’s intensive one-year study of the city’s trash-handling problems.

"The city doesn’t even take seriously its Comprehensive Plan...there is no provision for public facilities like trash transfer stations in the Comprehensive Plan," McGrath said, noting that most cities locate them away from high-density residential areas. "Zoning has been insensitively done – we’ve got to correct that....(and) we need more sensitive enforcement of environmental regulations."

While declining to detail the panel’s draft recommendations to the city council, which are expected to be available for public review around Oct. 15, McGrath discussed what appears to be a consensus of the eight panel members who included examinations of other municipal trash-handling operations among their tasks: that the D.C. government has done an abysmal job of managing its own trash and others’ refuse that commercial haulers temporarily deposit at several inner-city locations.

"They need to get off the dime and do it right, like a big city should," McGrath said. He said the District’s trash-handling operations became "antiquated and obsolete" long ago and the city has invested no money in improvements at its large Fort Totten transfer station in Northeast Washington during the past 15 years.

"We certainly feel Fort Totten is one of the strongest assets the city has," McGrath said. While residents of several neighborhoods – particularly in Northeast Washington sections of Wards 5, 6 and 7 – have long complained about foul odors, vermin and truck traffic associated with commercially operated transfer stations near their homes, McGrath said the city’s Fort Totten station appears to be fairly isolated and large enough for the city to upgrade and expand its operations.

"We need to use the space the District already has...we need to use best management practices and best available control technologies to become more efficient in our operations," he said, though noting that "Fort Totten wouldn’t be big enough to do everything" necessary to process and transport the volume of refuse and recylcables produced by D.C. residents and visitors.

McGrath’s panel – formally known as the District of Columbia Solid Waste Transfer Facility Site Selection Advisory Panel – has scheduled a day-long public meeting Oct. 21 at Trinity College to present its draft findings and seek public comment. Several of the panel’s members have said they expect to make some revisions in the draft, based on public input, before presenting their final recommendations to D.C. City Council in December.

McGrath repeatedly mentioned something he called "citizen convenience centers" that the city should set up to make recycling and disposing of large items easier and more accessible for residents. He also repeatedly referred to a role the city’s 37 advisory neighborhood commissions should play in locating these centers.

"ANCs need to help figure out where to put them, and then they need to be run right" to avoid becoming a public nuisance, McGrath said.

While some environmentalists have suggested the city consider rail or barge transport of the city’s trash to its eventual landfill and incinerator destinations, McGrath said the panel has rejected those options as being unfeasible.

"We’ve ruled out rail and barge transfer. You can’t handle trash by rail in the city," he said. "You need space – to set up a switch engine, for storage for specially built rail cars, which would be expensive – and we don’t even come close to the volume (of trash) needed to make such an operation economically feasible.

"You know, it’s easy to sit in your armchair and say, ‘Put it on the Potomac,’ but can you imagine the outcry if we had barges of trash floating down the middle of the Potomac? The economics are against it – you need a different sort of river than the Potomac," he said.

McGrath also discounted community rumors that the panel has decided to recommend creation of a new trash transfer station at the former D.C. Village site along the Anacostia River in Ward 8. While acknowledging that the idea has been discussed, McGrath said the panel hadn’t yet made any decision about such a proposal.

"I think people are getting excited over stuff that probably won’t occur," he said.

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator