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After two years of planning, construction of a replacement for the crumbling 801 East Men’s Shelter is getting underway after multiple delays. Community advocates, however, continue to voice complaints alleging a lack of transparency and questioning whether District officials are doing enough to address potential environmental hazards.
In March 2018, Mayor Muriel Bowser included $40 million in her proposed fiscal year 2019 capital budget to replace the 801 East Men’s Shelter due to “deteriorating conditions.” The facility — which had “outlived its life cycle,” according to the budget proposal — is one of six shelter facilities targeted for replacement in the city’s strategic plan to reduce homelessness.
“Conditions in the vast majority of the District’s shelters are simply unacceptable and offer very little to help reduce the trauma of whatever life events have led individuals and families to shelter,“ reads the plan, which was first published in 2015.
But environmental reviews conducted in October 2018 raised concerns about the proposed location of the new shelter, which would be on top of a former landfill and a tunnel for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s Green Line. Assessments identified soil contaminants that exceeded standard guidelines as well as structural complications with the site atop the Metrorail tunnel. Like the current shelter, the new site is on the St. Elizabeths East campus in Southeast D.C.
Additional soil tests were conducted in February 2020 after the project boundaries were altered slightly, but those results have not been released, fueling transparency concerns among stakeholders about what was found and how any potential hazards will be handled. Department of General Services Director Keith Anderson said in a statement to Street Sense Media that the findings didn’t alter the original request for proposals, and the project is on track for completion in September 2021 — even as community worries about the site remain.
“That [concern] is not going to change until we get confirmation that they’ve done sufficient testing and they’ve determined how it can safely be built on that specific site,” said Caitlin Cocilova, a staff attorney at the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. “We don’t have additional information to kind of answer the questions that we posed to them.”
Cocilova raised those questions in her testimony before the D.C. Council’s Committee on Facilities and Procurement at a performance oversight hearing in February. She described the Legal Clinic’s efforts over the past year to discuss concerns about soil contaminants with DGS, the agency that oversees most of the D.C. government’s construction projects.
At that hearing, Anderson said “having contaminants in the soil unfortunately is not uncommon.” In the later statement to Street Sense Media, Anderson said proper measures have been taken to handle any hazardous materials on the site.
“The Design-Build team has provided a soil management plan, as required by the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to properly manage hazardous materials on the site,” part of the statement says.
Engineering firm Hillis-Carnes Capitol Services PLLC conducted the environmental site assessments and the geotechnical report before the request for proposals was released in January 2019. The review concluded that the project, if it proceeded, would need to address several problem areas.
The initial concern involved the foundation of the new shelter being atop a portion of Metrorail’s Green Line, just north of Congress Heights Station.
“Our preliminary findings suggest that the development of the site as currently proposed would require difficult foundation design and construction and would place a significant amount of risk on the Owner,” the geotechnical report read. “There are subsurface conditions at the site that make foundation design and installation difficult, at best.”
The project’s design-build team is working closely with WMATA to ensure there is no impact on the subsurface tunnels, Anderson said in the statement.
The results of soil borings yielded additional issues. Among the soil contaminants found in amounts that exceeded recommended maximums were hexavalent chromium, dioxins, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and total petroleum hydrocarbons – diesel range organics (TPH-DRO).
Hexavalent chromium can pose a risk if present in a groundwater supply that is being used. In the case of 801 East, however, no ingestion would occur because the building is slated to use the municipal water supply, said Sally Brown, a research professor in the University of Washington’s College of the Environment and an expert on contaminated soils.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that petroleum hydrocarbons are common and not usually labeled as hazardous wastes.
According to Brown, VOCs would be the primary concern, as volatile compounds could have a pathway into the building.
“The issue that you have to think [about] when any contaminants are in the soil — how can they get to residents in the building? How could they harm residents in the building?” Brown said. “And there has to be an arrow that the thing in the soil could get to the person in the building.”
The 2018 environmental assessment conducted by Hillis-Carnes acknowledged that while the presence of VOCs is not unexpected due to the “urban nature of the site and the vicinity,” measures should still be put in place to counteract them.
The recommendations included installing engineering controls such as a vapor barrier or a subsurface ventilation system to prevent VOCs from migrating into the ambient air of the building.
“It’s not really a hazard if it vents into the general atmosphere,” said Scott Lynn, a lecturer in environmental science and technology at the University of Maryland. “It’s a problem, a health issue, if it goes into a confined space. [The] engineering control would be implemented to try and reduce the risk associated with that.”
The current 801 East Men’s Shelter has 380 beds and is open to males 18 years or older. Residents of the low-barrier shelter there have complained about safety and cleanliness. After a man was stabbed at the shelter in March 2019, the security company was replaced. In January 2020, an 801 East resident tested positive for Legionnaires’ disease — typically contracted from contaminated water.
According to the request for proposals, the new shelter will have 375 beds and multiple programs: a health clinic; a daytime service center; 25 medical respite beds; 50 beds for seniors and medically frail people; 100 beds for working people and others in employment programs; and 200 dormitory-style beds in the low-barrier housing tower.
Construction of the new shelter has been delayed multiple times. It was originally set to begin in April 2019 before being pushed back a month, with completion expected in the winter of 2020-21. Now, completion is set for September 2021. DGS said in the February hearing that it was still working to obtain permits to begin construction.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the shelter’s groundbreaking ceremony — originally scheduled for March 24 — was postponed indefinitely. Reginald Black, a consumer representative on the 801 East Advisory Team and a Street Sense Media vendor, said foundation grading is scheduled for sometime next month. A DGS spokesperson confirmed that construction is set to begin in May barring changes because of the current public health emergency. The old shelter will remain in use until residents can move into the new facility.
The original footprint for the new shelter was shifted to accommodate a nearby historic stable. Last December, the Historic Preservation Review Board recommended one wing of the building be pulled farther from the stable, among other design guidance.
“The 801 East Men’s Shelter is situated near the historic horse stable which sits on a separate parcel of land,” Anderson said in the statement. “DGS has awarded a separate contract to stabilize that facility during construction.”
In her February testimony before the Committee on Facilities and Procurement, the Washington Legal Clinic’s Cocilova outlined questions and concerns directed at DGS about the new 801 East shelter — questions that have gone largely unanswered.
“Hopefully, the answer is, it’s OK. But we have to err on the side of caution because we’re about to house hundreds of people there temporarily,” Cocilova said. “And we can’t take that risk for folks who don’t have another option — especially now in the current environment when, if we don’t test the soil efficiently, that’s potentially putting workers at risk who are actually doing the construction.”
At-large D.C. Councilmember Robert White, who chairs the Committee on Facilities and Procurement, asked DGS about some of Cocilova’s questions at the hearing. At that point, the agency said it had shared the soil abatement plan with the council and that a hazardous materials site survey already in progress would be available to the public within several weeks.
Those documents are not currently uploaded where the D.C. government has posted other 801 East documents, and neither Cocilova nor Black said they had seen copies.
“If things are at a safe level, why is it so hard to just say that?” Black said. “That’s been kind of my frustration — just how slow they have been with releasing information.”
DGS confirmed that additional boring samples were taken in February but said no changes were made to the existing request for proposals as a result of the findings.
Councilmember White reiterated during the hearing the importance of proper testing to ensure the safety of future residents.
“I think the thing that we all need to be very clear about is that people live there,” White said. “And so anything that we wouldn’t want next to our home, we shouldn’t want where the individuals at 801 East Men’s Shelter live.”
While the contaminants found in the soil are unlikely to become a major issue, proper vetting is still vital, said Brown, the University of Washington professor.
“I think it’s really valid to look into it,” Brown said. “These people that are homeless so often get the short shrift of anything and everything that you want to make sure that something that’s being built is in fact safe.”
Cocilova said the residents she has spoken to at 801 East are first and foremost looking for housing and job opportunities to come from the project. Anderson said in his statement that DGS is working with other agencies to assist residents looking to work on the 801 East redevelopment project.
The spread of COVID-19 makes it even more vital to ensure that construction workers and residents aren’t exposed to anything that could weaken their immune systems, Cocilova said.
She and others cite that as all the more reason for transparency and care regarding any project like the 801 East redevelopment.
“I think we need to do oversight just as strong, if not stronger, for communities that are vulnerable and that have been put in these positions based on our systems that haven’t functioned in order to house them,” Cocilova said, “because we shouldn’t even be having this many people experiencing homelessness.”
This article was co-published with TheDCLine.org