WASHINGTON - Imagine living covered in dust and breathing the particles of a construction dumping site every day. That is a reality for residents of a Northeast D.C. neighborhood.
For years, they have pleaded for help from the city. Five years ago, they thought help had arrived. The site and the city signed an agreement and things should have changed.
"The smell is here, the dirt is here, the dust is here,” said resident Betty Colson.
For nearly 30 years, this solid waste facility has sat tucked amidst other industrial sites in the Langdon Park neighborhood.
“The rats are bad, the trucks are bad, the dust is bad, the dirt is bad, the noise is bad,” said Colson.
But just feet away are also homes where taxpaying residents of the District live and breathe.
"Some days it's a strong chemical odor,” Colson described. “Some days it's a trash odor, but it's not what other people have to live with in Washington D.C.”
For the past two decades, Colson has resigned herself to live under a cloud of dust and a stench of trash.
"West of the river, this would never happen,” said Colson. “This would not happen anywhere than over here where you have older, black people."
She added, "You get up in the morning and sneeze and cough. Every morning, it's like clockwork. You know when you get up, you are going to go through this.”
The Rodgers Brothers’ site also houses its sister company, Innovative Recyclers. Back in 2012, the companies’ owner George Rodgers Jr. and the District of Columbia signed a settlement agreement.
FOX 5 obtained a copy of the 15-page document, which residents hoped would force the site to comply with the basics – suppressing the overwhelming amount of dust and enclosing the property to prevent the overpowering smell from wafting into their homes and curbing the constant haze of dust.
“You have all of these homes that are so close that are impacted, they can't even open their windows for fresh air,” said ANC commissioner Kevin Mullone.
The particles of heavy dust are inescapable, even in the dead of night and hours after the facility has closed for the day.
"When they are operating, they are supposed to have misters that release water to settle the dust,” said Mullone. “That doesn't happen.”
“What you will see is an increased effort by my office to make sure we are holding those people accountable,” said D.C. Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5). “I don’t want to see anyone of these facilities operate if they are operating illegally or if they are operating inconsistent with the consent agreement.”
It has been five years since the agreement was signed. For a month, FOX 5 has asked D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) why it has taken this long to look into the site’s compliance of the agreement.
“DCRA’S Office of the General Counsel is reviewing the findings of the agency’s last inspection to determine whether the site meets the requirements of the settlement agreement,” DCRA said in response.
After hours of tracking down the site’s owner, he finally agreed to meet FOX 5, but without a camera. Here is part of the conversation:
FOX 5’s Marina Marraco: “We received numerous complaints from neighbors in regards to your facility.”
George Rodgers Jr.: “Really? I mean, we've been here for 30 years. This is nothing new.”
Marraco: “Is there any sort of mitigation for the dust that you have operating?”
Rodgers: “Yes, ongoing. We use it every day.”
Marraco: “Where can we see those? I’m asking where we can see the sprinklers or whatever the…”
Rodgers: “We use water hoses.”
Marraco: “Just hoses?”
Rodgers: “Yes. Yes. That's the only thing that's plausible to use.”
The agreement requires periodic reports of the Rodgers Brothers’ site by city investigators. Despite a Freedom of Information Act request and written requests to several agencies, FOX 5 has yet to see a single report from the past five years.
In 2016, DCRA said the site was fined $22,500 for offenses which were not specified. The fine was paid in full.
Marraco: “So it seems like it's easier to pay the fine than to complete the enclosure and do everything that is agreed upon in the settlement.”
Rodgers: “No, that is not the case. There are some things we didn’t anticipate. We didn’t anticipate the regulations changing after we had already agreed to do certain things.”
FOX 5 asked McDuffie why they can’t get any sort of air quality sample.
McDuffie: “That is an executive agency. You would have to talk to the Department of Environment about that. We have asked them to be able to do that.”
Marraco: “I have, but it seems like no one really knows the answer, so that is why we are coming to you because you are the council member of Ward 5.”
McDuffie: "I think it's probably one of the most serious environment justice issues that we have in this city today.”
Marraco: “In 2012, they were asked to enclose their property. Have you been there since 2012?”
McDuffie: “I have been there probably once a year. I have asked reporters to come out with us.”
Marraco: “Have you ever seen it enclosed?”
McDuffie: “We have had the National Geographic come out and do reporting on it.”
Marraco: “But is it enclosed?”
McDuffie: “None of them are enclosed.”
“This is low hanging fruit to them,” said Mullone.
Mullone, the neighborhood advisory commissioner for Langdon Park, along with some of the more vocal constituents said they have also reached out to Mayor Muriel Bowser to no avail.
“I would stand to her face and say, ‘Would you put your mommy here? Would you?’ Why is it here? Why can’t they hold these people accountable? There is a right and a wrong. This is wrong. Just fix it.”
FOX 5 has learned the site has undergone at least five air-quality inspections since 2015. But D.C.’s Department of Energy and Environment has not provided FOX 5 with those results.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed the District of Columbia as the fourth-most asthma prevalent state or territory in the United States after Massachusetts, Kentucky and Maine.
The DC Asthma Coalition said asthma rates in D.C. are the highest east of the river in Wards 5, 7 and 8.