Blocks From the Pope’s Mass, a Dumping Ground for the Nation’s Capital

The pope has decried our throwaway society and its impact on the poor. In Washington, D.C., one neighborhood has waged a three-decade fight over garbage.

Editor’s Note: In this three-part series focusing on the pope and urban environments, National Geographic profiles the struggles of a neighborhood in each city Pope Francis is visiting: Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City.

"The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth,” Pope Francis wrote recently. Decrying today’s "throwaway culture," the pontiff is especially anguished that the world’s poor bear an unfair burden.

For a striking example of people victimized by the world’s garbage, the pope need look no farther than a neighborhood nestled between two landmarks he’ll visit in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday and Thursday. Two miles northeast of the U.S. Capitol, where he’ll address a joint session of Congress, and just blocks from North America’s largest Roman Catholic Church, where he’ll celebrate Mass, families often cope with stench and vermin, trash truck convoys spewing exhaust, and seagulls circling overhead. (Read “Kids Struggle to Breathe in This Neighborhood on Pope’s Tour.”)

For three decades, people living in Washington’s Brentwood section have argued that they’ve been treated as a dumping ground for the nation’s capital. Many in the neighborhood, which is 93 percent African-American and has 18 percent unemployment, say the situation would never be tolerated in the city’s white or wealthy neighborhoods. Twenty-nine percent of people there live below the poverty level.

Since 1988, the community has battled a trash transfer station just yards from homes that handles tens of thousands of tons of garbage every year. In addition, two other trash stations are located nearby.

"These residents are dealing with some of the most pressing environmental justice issues in the District of Columbia,” says Kenyan McDuffie, the ward’s representative on the D.C. city council who has tried to shut down the trash station since taking office in 2012.

When Pope Francis wrote in his environmental encyclical this summer that "some forms of pollution are part of people’s daily experience,” he could have been writing about Brentwood. Poor communities of color have borne the brunt of the city’s waste problems, even though they generate the least trash.

"If the pope could do anything about this, I would convert,” says Toni Newman, whose family bought a home in this neighborhood in the 1950s—at least 30 years before the trash operation arrived. "When the wind blows this way, it’s not good.”

Nearly all the garbage brought there comes from outside of the area, since the station imports trash from out of state as well as taking in garbage from around Washington. "The trash is from Virginia, Delaware, wherever they can find it. It’s coming from everywhere,” says Morris L. Shearin, Sr., pastor of Israel Baptist Church for 27 years. "They will dump a load off on Friday and close the doors over the weekend. And when they roll that door up after the weekend, it is awful in this community.”

Another neighbor, Michelle Bundy, who declined to be interviewed for this story, detailed the problem in testimony last year before the city council.

"The odor is so bad there are no words in the dictionary to describe [it],” she said. "We sit as hostages held inside our home during Indian summers 24 hours a day.

"Some of my neighbors are 85 years old and older, and they view this as a form of disrespect. They cannot sit on porches and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Our children are classified as underachievers, but they…cannot enjoy natural vitamin D. They cannot breathe the air.

"If God showed up today, ask yourselves, would he be happy with what he saw in Brentwood today?” Bundy asked.

Cheap Land Attracted Trash Industry

Today’s environmental problems in Brentwood have their roots in the past of Northeast Washington’s Ward 5 political district. Traversed early on by railroad lines that connect the nation’s capital to New York and other Northeast cities, the ward attracted large manufacturers, food processors, and warehouses. Those businesses are now gone, but Ward 5 was left with more than half the industrially zoned land in the District of Columbia and some of its lowest property values.

In the 1980s, the vacant, cheap, industrial land drew the private trash business. At these stations, garbage trucks dump waste for consolidation in larger tractor trailers. Washington then sends its trash to a waste-to-energy incinerator and landfills in Virginia.

Like all cities, Washington is left to deal with the fallout from what Pope Francis laments as the world’s failure to adopt "the circular model of production,” where goods are designed from the start to be reused and recycled. On Monday, a new Yale University study revealed that Americans disposed of about 262 million tons of garbage in 2012, more than twice the volume earlier estimated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The nation’s capital, despite setting ambitious goals and taking high-profile steps like banning foam food containers, lags behind other cities in managing and reusing waste. Its recycling rate of 23 percent is 10 percent below the national average and substantially below that of its neighbors, like Montgomery County in suburban Maryland, at 60 percent. In fact, its volume of waste—about 800,000 tons per year—is up 27 percent since 2000.

Mike Ewall, director of the nonprofit Energy Justice Network, argues that Washington could do far more to manage and eliminate waste so the trash transfer stations wouldn’t be needed. "We endorse a not-in-anybody’s-backyard approach,” he says.

Shearin remembers bitterly a community meeting he hosted in the late 1980s when businessmen and city officials presented a proposal for what they called a "recycling” facility.

"In this building—in this church!—they lied to us,” Shearin recalls angrily. "Promised us this thing and that thing. That’s the number one thing that I hate, when people think that I had anything to do with them being here. Never in a million years!’

In response to questions from National Geographic, Andy Moss, a representative of Progressive Waste Solutions, which operates the transfer station, says the company has technology designed to prevent odors.

"We recognize that waste collection, recycling, and disposal can be a challenge in an urban environment. Our aim is to do our part to help protect the health, beauty, and economy of the communities we serve. For example, in our transfer facilities, we employ the latest odor control systems and our employees work hard to ensure a minimal impact to the surrounding neighborhood,” Moss wrote in an email. However, he provided no details.

Moses Sansbury remembers city workers who brought poison pellets and advice on how to rid his yard of rats that had scampered to his home two blocks from the trash site. "I had a rat burrow in an old tree stump,” he said. "They had set up shop. But the guys came through, and they were very successful in eradication.”

Still, Sansbury hoped the trash business would move out after 2002, when Brentwood landed a large supermarket. "We didn’t think we’d have to fight to have the transfer station relocated once Giant was here,” Sansbury says, "because food and rats don’t mix.”

But the trash facility’s then owners had sued to block the city from shutting it down, and in 2009, ending 14 years of litigation, District officials signed an agreement requiring installation of sound barriers, landscaping, and other steps to clean up. In return, the station was allowed to keep operating for at least 25 years.

Neighbors in Brentwood were crestfallen. Some believe that the city found it too easy to sell them out.

“No One Should Be Subject to This”

Although many are middle-class homeowners, the people in this neighborhood of brick row houses have little clout in a city where other neighborhoods are immensely wealthy in comparison. While family income throughout Washington has risen 19 percent since 2000, it has fallen nearly 24 percent in the U.S. Census tract near the trash transfer station.

The neighborhood has slightly more senior citizens than the city average, and 21 percent of children born here have low birth weight, more than double the city average.

"A lot of people would put this in the context of ethnic and racial conflict,” says Sansbury, a former banking official who now does contracting and consulting. "That’s not what it is. It is people who want to live decently and healthfully. No one should be subject to this.” 

Brentwood residents watch—sometimes with a jaundiced eye—as a redevelopment boom and gentrification remake the rest of the city. Tens of millions of dollars of investment are being poured into new commercial and housing complexes throughout D.C.

"In the ward, we have incomes that have not kept pace with the cost of housing,” McDuffie says. "People don’t have a choice on where to live, and they are forced to deal with all these issues and industrial uses.

"I don’t oppose all industrial uses,” McDuffie adds. "But the quality of life was drastically altered by that facility. That never should have happened, and I am on a mission to see it is relocated.”

Earlier this year, the city council approved his bill authorizing seizure of the property, and the city is now in negotiations with the trash operator.

Shearin, for one, says he is steadfast in his desire to see the trash station pushed out of the community.

"I’m just like a tree planted by the water,” he says, quoting an old hymn. "I shall not be moved.”

Follow Marianne Lavelle on Twitter.

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