Of Rubbish and Injustice: Environmental Racism in DC


Naomi Todd

A few blocks south of the Fort Totten Metro station, you’ll find a large enclosed area with signs reading: “Federal Property: Keep Out.” After driving in, you’ll find an overflowing pile of broken chairs, scattered pieces of wood, old toilets, and car parts. This is one of two government-run trash transfer stations located in the city, where solid waste is brought to be sorted and then put into larger trucks to be hauled to incinerators or other waste disposal locations. The second transfer station in DC is located off of Benning Road, and receives the other half of DC’s trash.

Most major cities in the United States have trash transfer stations or dumps, so this isn’t unusual. But how do the transfer stations located in predominantly lower-income, majority-Black neighborhoods affect the people who live in the surrounding communities?

All of DC’s trash is brought to the same trash transfer stations: Fort Totten, Benning Road, or one of the three remaining smaller, privately run transfer stations, which are all located in Ward 5. At the time of the 2010 census, DC was one of the most segregated cities in the country, with the eastern half of the city being majority Black residents, and the western half being overwhelmingly white. Even though this is changing due to gentrification, the way that the city’s trash is handled hasn’t changed. The western side of DC has no designated solid waste disposal areas, even though trash is picked up twice a week in some Ward 1 and 2 neighborhoods. Despite the fact that waste isn’t proportionally produced across the city, residents who live near the transfer stations experience the effects of the entire city’s waste.

Residents in the neighborhoods with private transfer stations—Brentwood and Langdon—have been trying to get the city to close them for over three decades. They have filed complaints with the city courts, talked to representatives from the mayor’s office, and even filed a lawsuit against the owner of the Brentwood facility. They have a strong case: besides the obvious inconvenience of living next to a huge pile of garbage, long-term exposure to solid waste can harm the human body. Residents who live in close proximity to these transfer stations, not to mention the workers who are constantly breathing in and handling the solid waste, are more likely to have respiratory problems like asthma caused by inhalation of toxins. Residents also encounter strong odors from the waste and have to contend with a plethora of disease-carrying pests, like rats. Garbage trucks coming and going create more exhaust, and transfer stations are a source of airborne mercury pollution from items such as broken light bulbs, medical waste, and batteries. Mercury poisoning can have detrimental effects on the human body, including muscle damage and memory loss.

After trash is sorted at the transfer stations, it’s divided up and sent to several incinerators—machines that burn waste for electrical power—across southeastern Virginia, which had the highest minority population in the state at the time of the 2010 census. A study done by the University of Michigan in 2016 looked at 319 waste disposal locations, including incinerators, in the United States and found that there was a consistent pattern of these disposal facilities being located in low-income communities of color. Another groundbreaking 2007 study found that more than half of all people in the United States who live within 3.0 kilometers (1.86 miles) of a hazardous waste facility are people of color. Incinerators are the most expensive and polluting waste disposal treatment, creating around 29 million tons of waste annually. The facility that receives the most of DC’s trash is the fourth largest incinerator in the country, located in Lorton, Virginia, about 40 minutes outside of the city. From 1910 to 2001, DC’s prisons were also located here, right next to the incinerator, leaving prisoners trapped next to the pollution source.

So, why are most waste disposal locations located in low-income communities of color? Since this is a trend seen across the country, there has to be some explicable reasoning of how it came to be. In the environmental justice field, there’s a major “chicken or egg” debate—the question of if facility owners decided to build in a low-income neighborhood, or if the establishment of these waste disposal facilities caused more low-income residents to move there.. The same study from the University of Michigan that analyzed the 319 waste disposal sites found that there was a consistent trend of facility owners placing these waste facilities in low-income neighborhoods, and the demographic changes that occured after the facility was built were just a continuation of trends already occurring beforehand. The study actually found that many facilities were actually built in areas where white residents had been moving out and residents of color had been moving in for a decade or two beforehand. The facilities were most likely built in these locations for a combination of reasons, including racial discrimination in the housing market and the relative political weakness of minorities in opposing development of harmful facilities.

The location of DC’s transfer stations and their impact on local communities are a textbook example of environmental racism, which is when the environmental impacts specifically apply to a situation in a racial context. Regardless of the “chicken or egg” question, at this point what matters is the impact on the community. In the face of widespread environmental injustice, some residents are taking action. Going to court against the government for violating civil rights often proves difficult because explicit evidence of intentional racial discrimination can be hard to find. Even though courts do not allow private lawsuits for Civil Rights Act violations unless intent to discriminate can be shown, it’s still considered a violation of the Civil Rights Act when agencies (the state agencies that grant pollution permits to incinerators) permit facilities in locations that would create a discriminatory effect on the community.

Environmental racism is more common than many people realize. In most major American cities, there are advocacy organizations working to combat local injustices. DC has several of our own, including the the DC Environmental Network, and local chapters of national organizations like the Energy Justice Network and EarthJustice.

In Baltimore in 2012, several high school students, under senior Destiny Watford’s leadership, led their community in a four-year campaign to stop the construction of an incinerator near their high school. The students lived in the Curtis Bay area of Baltimore, a diverse, low-income neighborhood. Watford and other students at her school formed an advocacy group and began knocking on doors and organizing a march to educate the neighborhood’s residents about the state’s plan to build the incinerator. The plans for the incinerator were eventually halted indefinitely, and in 2016, Watford was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious environmental awards.

Before throwing away their trash, most people don’t consider where it’s going to end up. If you aren’t directly experiencing what it’s like to live next to an incinerator or a trash transfer station, chances are it’s not something that you’ve thought about. The effects of the environmental racism in DC are something that many residents experience every day, but there are ways you can help. Educating others, becoming involved with local environmental organizations, and just being aware of the privilege that you might have in this situation are all steps we can take. For you, a piece of trash might be out of sight, out of mind. But for the person who lives next to the dump, it is always in sight, and always in mind.