Residents from Southwest D.C. and environmental justice activists from around the District gathered at Christ United Methodist Church on September 17 to discuss the challenges facing the Buzzard Point neighborhood. The brunch meeting was organized by Empower D.C.￼
As attendees munched on sausages and sipped coffee, they discussed construction of the new D.C. United Soccer Stadium will be built. The group defined environmental justice as pursuing accountability for hazards disproportionately affecting people of color and low-income people, including water and air contamination.
Attendees also discussed the current and future threats facing residents, with posters reading phrases like “goal!” “streetcar” and “the rent is too damn high” prompting small group conversations. These placards evoked fears about environmental toxins as the soccer stadium goes up, worries about displacement from the new streetcar slated to cut through Southwest, and general concerns about the affordability of housing in the area.
Groundbreaking on the new D.C. United Stadium will begin in December 2016. Activists and residents fear that contaminants present in the ground, including lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and volatile organic compounds, will be exposed in the process of excavation. According to the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development’s Buzzard Point Soccer Stadium Environmental Mitigation Study, the stadium building site could contain lead-based paint, asbestos-containing materials and PCBs, but that all contaminated material would be safely removed from the site. Due to the District’s planned remediation of hazardous materials, the report claimed that “long-term impacts of hazardous substances resulting from the proposed soccer stadium would be beneficial.” According to ANC 6D Commissioner Rhonda Hamilton, exposure to dust from nearby aggregate concrete yards already causes ill health effects for residents.
Empower D.C. environmental organizer Kari Fulton, with help with Hamilton, described an additional threat to residents in the form of construction of a new Pepco Waterfront station at Q St in close proximity to homes and an elementary school. They fear electromagnetic radiation from the transmission lines will have adverse health effects on residents. According to the National Cancer Institute, some studies have shown a possible link between living near electric power lines and the development of childhood leukemia. Yet another concern is that the new stadium will increase traffic to the area, raising levels of pollution in the air and crowding the streets with parked cars.
The D.C. Department of Health published a report called “Buzzard Point Community Health and Safety Study” in August. While the report presented demographic information from the census tract where Buzzard Point is located, its health analysis was based on data from the larger zip code area, which includes higher-income areas. The report did not find significant differences in the health of Southwest residents compared to the rest of the District, but admitted there seemed to be more cases of chronic lower-respiratory diseases in the zip code that included Buzzard Point, as well as higher death rates for heart diseases and cancer. The study also noted that the industrial facilities producing concrete dust had previously been issued citations for fugitive dust violations and that Buzzard Point residents reported higher rates of asthma than the rest of the District.
The Southwest residents present were wary of D.C. United’s new project, after having been burned by one sports stadium before: when the Washington Nationals Stadium was built in Southwest in 2008, residents were told affordable housing would be replaced. The Arthur Capper Carrollsburg Redevelopment project plan, part of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development’s HOPE VI program, promised one-to-one replacement of demolished affordable housing located near the stadium within the same footprint.
“No one actually asked anyone what they thought of it,” said Fulton. “They swore up and down that there was going to be the same number of affordable housing units.” Those promises did not come to fruition, say organizers, and public housing was not rebuilt. According to Christy Goodman of the D.C. Housing Authority, nearly 500 units have been rebuilt and 270 remain to be constructed. “DCHA committed to rebuilding the 707 affordable units that were previously part of the now demolished Capper/Carrollsburg development, ” wrote Goodman in an email to Street Sense.
Keya Chatterjee is a resident of Southwest who became especially invested in local environmental issues when lead was discovered in the water of her five-year-old son’s school, Capitol Hill Montessori. Chatterjee lived in the neighborhood when the Nationals’ Stadium was built and observed how the city failed to keep their promise to maintain the same level of affordable housing.
Attendees also discussed displacement from rising property values. As the area undergoes redevelopment, it is unclear that current residents will be able to afford to stay where they are. “That area that was once a blighted, industrial zone is going to become waterfront property,” said Fulton. With a rise in development and retail locations comes a likely decrease in affordable housing. According to Fulton, the remodel of the old Buzzard Point Coast Guard building could exacerbate this problem, since as an older building it is not subject to rules requiring a certain number of affordable units be included in new construction.
The meeting ended with a call to action, with Fulton listing legal services, air purifiers to be provided by D.C. United or the by the City, and a Health Advocate to represent Buzzard Point residents as necessary for the neighborhood’s fight for environmental justice. In March 2016, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6D passed a resolution to ask Mayor Bowser to appoint a community health advocate to protect the community’s interest, and asking that Pepco be required to shield residents from the radiation of the new station.
Empower D.C. plans to apply pressure to the Zoning Commission and Department of Health, and called on attendees to attend all relevant meetings to testify on behalf of Buzzard Point. Empower D.C. will be holding a tailgate at D.C. United’s last game of the season on Oct. 16.
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of affordable units DCHA has rebuilt since the demolition of the Capper/Carrollsburg development. The error implied that less units have been constructed. The original number stated, 270 (of 707), is the number still to be rebuilt — not the number that has been completed.