Across the Wards | One brick building in Ivy City is finally hammering home the need for environmental justice in D.C.
The intersection of Fenwick Place NE and Capitol Place NE in Washington, D.C. is permeated by the smell of what can only be described as burning rubber. At first, the cause of such a smell is a mystery. The primarily residential block of the Ivy City neighborhood is sandwiched between industrial buildings like a seafood distribution center and a large parking lot housing dozens of official city government vehicles with the familiar red D.C. stars and stripes.
Take a closer look at the intersection of Fenwick and Capitol. At that very corner, there’s a one-story building with a brick facade that extends down the street. It seems to subtly avoid advertising its purpose. An antenna-esque pipe sticks out above the roof, where the distinct smell seems to emanate from. And there’s a metal blue plaque announcing the name of its owners: National Engineering Products, Inc.
In this very neighborhood, on the outskirts of the nation’s capital, a ripple of doubt is sweeping through the communities of Ward 5 as D.C. officials and agencies fail to deliver on environmental justice issues. That’s why Councilmember Zachary Parker’s choice to announce his latest bill outside the unremarkable brick building on Capitol Avenue NE was nothing short of deliberate.
Empowering Ivy City
For 80 years, National Engineering Products, Incorporated (NEPI), a company producing Naval sealants for military operations, has operated in Ivy City. In February 2023, the Department of Energy and the Environmental held public briefings on air quality tests performed “inside, on, and near the premises” of the building the previous year. These tests demonstrated that, among other chemicals, formaldehyde was found in higher concentrations than the EPA’s Regional Screening Level threshold.
Brenda Ingraham, a 58-year resident of Ivy City, took part in a letter-writing event this October. Neighborhood residents, activists and Empower DC organizers banded together to send almost 100 letters addressed to political figures like Mayor Muriel Bowser, Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, as well DOEE leaders and NEPI president Gail Peterson.
At the October event, Ingraham said she was previously unaware of the role NEPI played in her community until she was informed by Parisa Norouzi, Empower DC’s executive director. Like other Ivy City residents, she now questions whether some of the serious health problems she and her adult son developed while growing up in Ivy City may have resulted from the plant’s presence.
“I have cancer, and my son has respiratory problems,” Ingraham said.
Ingraham noted she can’t directly attribute her and her son’s diagnoses to the NEPI plant. Still, exposure to chemicals such as formaldehyde, which is being emitted by NEPI’s chemical product process, is consistent with the issues both Ingraham and her son now live with.
Although Ward 5 is one of the city’s eight total wards, this section of the city houses half of D.C.’s industrial development. It’s not for lack of people — Ward 5 is also home to 20% of the households in D.C. Demographically, 64% of its residents are Black, Indigenous, or people of color.
According to the Center for Disease Control’s Environmental Justice Index, environmental injustices are distributed unequally throughout Washington, D.C. Clean air and water violations, as well as toxic waste sites, are much more likely to predominate D.C.’s poorer, Blacker wards, chiefly 5, 7 and 8.
In Ivy City and Ward 5, grassroots initiatives and city-wide legislation have been introduced to shut down the NEPI plant once and for all, with concerns largely directed toward one D.C. bureaucracy: the Department of Energy and Environment, or DOEE.
On its website, DOEE proclaims its mission statement. It reads as follows:
“DOEE’s mission is to improve the quality of life for the residents and natural inhabitants of the nation’s capital by protecting and restoring the environment, conserving our natural resources, mitigating pollution, increasing access to clean and renewable energy, and educating the public on ways to secure a sustainable future.”
According to Sebrena Rhodes, DOEE isn’t honoring that statement.
“That’s just like you saying you are vegan and I see you around the corner eating a steak,” Rhodes said.
The DOEE did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
As a native Washingtonian, Rhodes is not only a neighborhood commissioner for ANC 5D01 but also serves as a community organizer and activist with Empower DC. Rhodes stands at the intersections between civic duty and activism, lending her voice as an elected official while lending her energy and expertise to Empower DC.
For Rhodes, the NEPI issue has elevated her concerns about the effectiveness of mitigating environmental injustice concerns in D.C.
“They’re not doing what they are supposed to do, and I don’t want to hear, ‘because we don’t have the capacity’ or ‘we don’t have enough folks working and we need to hire more folks.’ I’m sure they make a lot of money, they can do three jobs in one, because I’ve done it. You gotta make it happen. You gotta make it happen, and by any means necessary,” Rhodes said.
New legislation aims to remedy DC’s environmental justice gap
The NEPI building is not the only active pollutant site within the community. A lawsuit filed in 2021 by then D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine claimed that Rodgers Brothers Custodian Services, a trash facility, was dumping construction debris and petroleum into nearby storm drains that lead to the Anacostia River. Though the DOEE cited violations against the company from 2012 up until 2020, the facility is still operating.
When asked about the lawsuit, Rhodes said she was unaware of that specific business emitting pollutants. Transparency about pollution is not necessarily always publicized by proper authorities in affected areas. For example, prior to the 2022 assessment and Empower DC’s subsequent campaign to shut down the plant, some Ivy City residents were unaware of the extent of the harm being caused to their community by NEPI.
On Nov. 6, Ward 5 Councilmember Parker introduced The Environmental Justice Amendment Act of 2023 in front of Ivy City’s NEPI plant. Its various provisions include the establishment of an Energy and Environmental Justice Commission within DOEE.
Washington, D.C., currently lacks an initiative in any of its agencies dedicated to addressing and enforcing environmental justice. In order to specifically address businesses like NEPI, the amendment also aims to increase regulations upon facilities based on their level of pollution through required cumulative impact assessments.
Anthony David Jr. serves as an environmental justice organizer with Empower DC, a grassroots organization headquartered in Ivy City, a predominantly Black neighborhood in Ward 5. He said Empower D.C. is working closely to advance Councilmember Parker’s bill, which will be heavily contingent on budget and oversight hearings conducted by the D.C. Council next January.
He said the ongoing process of working with city officials, departments, and even federal agencies to shut down the NEPI plant consists of “a lot of teeth-pulling.” Still, David Jr. is optimistic that the efforts of Empower D.C. and Ivy City residents will pay off.
“It’s about holding these agencies accountable,” David Jr. said.
Agencies and accountability: Empower DC’s next steps
Agencies like DOEE, Rhodes said, don’t have enough resources to keep up with environmental justice issues in D.C. She said this still isn’t an excuse.
She said D.C. agencies and the office of Mayor Muriel Bowser are focused on expediting commercial development and economic opportunities in D.C. rather than addressing existing problems for its residents.
Additionally, Rhodes said agencies in particular operate as permit-issuing bureaucracies for facilities like NEPI rather than rule-breaking. NEPI, for example, operates without the required D.C. air permit, and current D.C. rules wouldn’t even allow an industrial facility to be constructed as close as it is to a residential area under city zoning regulations. Mayor Bowser’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“The District agencies are jacked up. Because a lot of times, they’re not following the rules, they’re just issuing stuff, and just letting it go thinking, ‘Ain’t nobody gonna say anything about it,'” Rhodes said.
She said even permits are overlooked. For example, Rhodes said that although businesses may operate without a permit for a six-month grace period, the city allowed NEPI to operate from June 2022 through March of this year without a permit renewal — three months longer than the leniency period allows.
David Jr. agreed that agencies don’t have individuals in place to enforce their framework. Still, he said he believes efforts like Councilmember Parker’s bill are “building momentum toward a better future.”
“We will shut the plant down,” David Jr. said.
From a justice standpoint, Rhodes doesn’t believe that forcing these businesses to close is enough.
“I don’t even think shutting the business down is helpful. Because it’s just gonna be shut down and we’re going to be living with years and years and years of the negative effects of this business. I think they should go to jail. I think the owners of these businesses should be prosecuted and should be put in jail,” Rhodes said.