By Matt Koehler
Down in Buzzard Point, amidst the sound of hammering, saws, and heavy Mack cement trucks, sit two cement plants that supply the essential raw materials to make all the new high rises, rise. The whole area used to be an industrial wasteland with parcels of toxic soil designated as brownfields, but warp speed development has transformed this no man’s land into a Sim City-like utopia of amenities and market rate housing.
The widespread development and the factories that supply them don’t come without issues, though. There are acute environmental concerns but before the new developments came online, there wasn’t anyone to complain about it.
Well, let me backup. There weren’t the right kind of people to complain about the issues.
The communities most affected over the years by the contaminants from the soil, dust from the factories, and how development exacerbated both, were generations of poor Black residents, advocating in vain for their right to live with clean air and water.
Developers and city officials didn’t listen to them, or only paid them lip service – until now. Now, with more affluent residents rapidly moving in, suddenly the operators and the city government are taking complaints of environmental contamination more seriously.
Over a Zoom call in early April, ANCs Fredrica ‘Rikki’ Kramer (ANC 6D05) and Rhonda Hamilton (ANC 6D06) told me that Councilmember Phil Mendelson called Buzzard Point a classic example of environmental racism. The surrounding African American communities are vulnerable – many live at or below the poverty level and are already sick (both attributable to historic racism), and have been so for at least a few generations.
Hamilton says that before the construction of the soccer stadium in 2017, the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) did a complete assessment (published in 2016, link below) of Buzzard Point and qualified it as an industrial brownfield. They found dangerous contaminants in the soil, like benzo[a]pyrene, arsenic, and lead, to name a few. Developers, including DC United, were given liability protection to build down there but they were expected to clean up the sites before building.
Hamilton and Kramer say it’s more likely that those highly toxic substances were simply buried under the new developments.
Promises to clean up these dangerous substances aside, the broader population (mostly Black) had already been exposed to and affected by these chemicals for years. “The way the environmental expert explained it to me,” Hamilton said, “he was like, ‘Being exposed to these chemicals are not something that you all will feel sick right away. It may take 5 or 10 or 15 years down the line.”
Longterm, these substances can cause a range of pulmonary and cardiovascular issues – of which, long-existing border communities around Buzzard Point were found to have higher rates of chronic lower-respiratory diseases in the 20024 zip code, as well as higher death rates for heart diseases and cancer.
“And then what you do is you dig up a bunch of contaminants right beside them. You don’t put any core protections in place,” Hamilton emphasized. “To be honest with you, I would not move in Buzzard Point the way those chemicals in that soil is being actively thrown up like it’s regular dust.”
The new residents moving in are part of Kramer’s constituency and she has started hearing intermittent complaints. She told me of one constituent who lives down in Buzzard Point on a high floor in one of the new buildings. “She’s working from home all the time and allegedly she’s seeing a lot of things that contribute to the problem.”
Other than from multiple construction sites, the dust also comes from two cement factories that have been operating in the area for a long time. Both factories have received multiple violations over the years, and many people, including activists and the ANCs, say they continue to flaunt regulations and coat the surrounding communities in dust.
“We been pressing on the Department of Energy and Environment for a very long time to do something about Buzzard Point,” said Hamilton, “to do a cumulative impact analysis. Because when you talk to the cement factories, they assume really no responsibility. And the realities are, is the way that cement plants do their everyday business…They release a huge amount of particulate matter, just by design.”
Starting where the cement is made
Back in March, a local activist group, SW DC Action – “residents who organize and advocate for a more equitable, anti-racist, and environmentally sustainable neighborhoods,” according to their web page – published a Letter to the Editor with The Southwester. In their letter, they accused Vulcan Materials Company, one of the cement plants in Buzzard Point, of violating the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and operating without a permit.
(The other plant – Superior Construction Services – was not in violation of any regulations, nor did it have an expired permit, so we omitted them as part of our official investigation.)
The Southwester reached out to Vulcan to get some answers, and I had a chance to speak with Jimmy Flemming, vice president of Permitting and External Affairs, about the company’s operations and the community’s concerns.
Right now, Vulcan is still technically operating without a permit, except for the fine print. According to Flemming, they filed for a renewal in February of 2020, four months before their permit was set to expire. They’ve been granted extensions since then, which allows them to operate as if they had an active permit.
The ANCs informed me that the official review of their permit hasn’t been opened up yet, and Flemming confirmed they are still waiting for their permit to be renewed (more on that later). Meanwhile, there are community concerns about how the cement plants are operating, especially Vulcan.
One of the major concerns with the Vulcan plant specifically, is that it is much older than the Superior plant and contributes more to the environmental and health problems of community members.
Flemming told me their ready mix facility in Buzzard point “has its challenges” but pointed to the fact that it’s not just them, the whole area is undergoing an exponential rate of construction.
“I would call it an inordinate amount of construction going on in that area right now. If you’re looking at the river and you look to the left, you’ve got the bridge that’s under construction. If you look to the right, we’ve got a condominium or apartment complex that’s going in. There’s construction everywhere,” Flemming explained to me. “Honestly, that’s… the concrete we’re supplying is a product of all that development.”
What about the Clean Air Act (CAA) and Clean Water Act (CWA) violations?
Flemming thanked me for the question and said they did receive a notice of violation of their air permit from the Department of Environmental Quality. “It was a technical violation, not a violation that involved public health in any way. One of the settings in the bag house was at issue. So, we challenged that notice of violation and appealed it through [the] EPA.”
“[What] was there was a conflict between what was in the permit and what the manufacturer setting recommended. And so, what they did was…We signed a consent order to fix the language in the permit. So there was no violation…Well, it was a violation of the permit, per se, but it was not a public health issue. It was just an issue with the setting.”
He said that, otherwise, when they see track-out material (dirt, mud, or other debris that comes out of a construction site on the public roads), they take whatever steps they can to ameliorate the situation.
The ANCs, as well as DC Action and other community members I spoke to claimed that this isn’t true a lot of the time. I went down to where both Superior and Vulcan operate – they share an access road along S Street SW – and saw dozens of trucks exit the plants and kick up dust. Looking out over Superior’s much larger facility towards Nat’s Park, the air was hazy with particulate matter from the plant.
At Vulcan, which hugs a riverbank along the Anacostia, clouds of dust kicked up everytime a cement truck entered the facility, but, true to what Flemming told me over Zoom, mitigation protocols seem to be followed for each Truck that left (that might have been due to the fact that I was down there taking pictures).
The same could not be said of trucks leaving the Superior plant. The air was gritty along Half Street and got grittier the longer I stayed there. Still, you could see joggers, parents and their kids, and people on bikes going up and down the road, enjoying the warm weather.
Despite assuring me that Vulcan does the best they can to mitigate dust, and using the systems and checks they put in place regularly, he says they’ll be making some changes. He also said they need to do a better job of beautifying the site.
About that CWA violation? Flemming said he did not know anything about violations to the Clean Water Act, but that if there was something, “We’d certainly like to see it.”
When I reached back out to DC Action, they couldn’t find the corroborating documents either, but pointed to reports from the EPA that indicate higher levels of pollutants in the Anacostia around both plants.
I asked if they had received a lot of complaints from the community about excess dust in the air or not following protocols. “We’ve had conversations about issues that they’ve brought to our attention before,” he assured me. He downplayed the excess complaints, saying they try to keep in-touch with the community – keep the lines of communication open. “Gosh, we want to work with the community and, you know, all they have to do is pick up the phone and let us know.”
When pressed on the issue of community engagement – something the ANCs brought up – Flemming said, “I would say that we probably need to do a better job of broadening that outreach and looking for ways to communicate with the neighbors and with the community.” He stressed that they want the community in which they operate “to be successful and do well” and that they “want to be a part of that.”
The ANCs brought up the status and age of the equipment at Vulcan as compared to Superior – the difference is “night and day” as Kramer told me. I asked Flemming about it and he said, “The equipment is not something, on our site, you look at and say, ‘Wow! What a beautiful plant!'”
“The question is, does it do the job? And, is it meeting all the permit requirements, which protect the safety and health of, not only our employees, but people outside the gate.”
This, however, reminds me of what the ANCs said about air monitors and how the District doesn’t require them. The sense that the way policies and regulations are set now is good enough, and it seems what Flemming is telling me is that the state of the plant is good enough.
He paused for a moment thinking, and continued, “You’ll be seeing changes in the way it just looks, by the way.”
Concrete solutions moving forward
Buzzard Point’s story has been one of years of never-ending development, from the PEPCO substation, to Audi Field, to housing, and now the bridge project. The rapid pace of development will continue, as will the production of building materials at both cement plants.
Unlike the past, though, when only border communities of poor Black residents were affected and ignored, now the tax base that city officials usually cater to is moving in. Whether the new residents know it or not – or care – they will be affected by dangerous contaminants in the soil and dust from cement factories.
What exactly is the city doing about all this? According to the ANCs and DC Action, next to nothing. Hamilton said they can’t get the city to commit to things to protect the health of the community. And, the community is not asking for a lot – just basic things that wouldn’t cost too much.
One of those low cost mitigation strategies would be real time air monitors. When the soccer stadium was going up, DC United put up four active air quality monitors, which allowed them to see air quality in real time. Right now there is only one on top of Greenleaf Recreation Center, and that one records air quality over a 24 hour hour period, which does not give an accurate look at air quality.
In a letter the Ward 6 ANCs sent to the EPA, the Commissioners announced that “environmental scientists at American University and colleagues at Washington Trinity University are in the process of expanding a system of air monitors.” These are real time monitors and will give a more accurate reading of how contaminated the air is. The first monitors will likely start going up in June, but they need volunteers to put the monitors in their homes.
Dr. Shizuka Hsieh, Associate Professor of ChemistryTrinity Washington University, told me that there is a legal distinction between the real time monitors and the DOEE monitors already in use, though. “High readings at DOEE monitors can lead to legal action,” she told me, “but real-time monitor readings carry no legal weight, and it’s hard to get governments to take action based on their reading.” She said this makes sense because the lower cost real time monitors “have significant differences in readings” and can be affected by temperature and humidity, among other factors.
In that same letter, the Ward 6 ANCs said that DOEE is set to renew Vulcan’s permit soon but they have yet to schedule a hearing or public comment period. The ANC has written to DOEE several times over the past year but to no avail. An open comment period will give the community a chance to weigh in as stakeholders on the future of how Vulcan operates. Kramer says that not opening up the comment period puts the community in kind of a ‘no man’s land.’
A third low cost mitigation measure the city could implement would be to simply pave the roads around the cement plants.
These are not big asks according to Kramer and Hamilton, and given the long history of ignoring the concerns of existing communities and now putting new ones at risk, it’s the least the city can do.
Hamilton tells the story of another resident, who has lived near Buzzard Point all her life, and played down there with her friends when they were kids. “That was a gathering spot for young people – most of those people, her friends, died from cancer. You see people move here and slowly over time they develop heart disease. They develop chronic asthma.”
“It’s a disservice to existing residents and new residents to say that we can coexist with an industrial site. You know, you’re selling and renting places where people are buying into a contaminated area that you know over time, if they stay here long enough, they’re gonna get sick like other residents who have gotten sick who have been here more long-term. So, I think the city should be ashamed of itself to not clean up the area and make it safe before they started stacking residents.”
This article was updated June 11, at 1 p.m.