Last month, I published a story that investigated complaints of pollution and excess dust experienced by long-existing border communities and incoming residents in and around Buzzard Point, in Southwest DC. Our investigation centered around the two ready-mix concrete plants that operate out of the area and delved into whether those plants were continuing to exacerbate health issues and violate environmental protocols.
As part of our investigation, we spoke to the ANCs (Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners), activists that work with disenfranchised communities, and a representative from one of the ready-mix facilities. Both the activists and the ANCs pointed to anecdotal accounts and data that backed up community concerns but some questions remained unanswered.
Since publishing that article, the Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and Dr. Shizuka "Zukes" Hsieh, an associate professor of chemistry at Trinity Washington University who is working with ANC (Advisory Neighborhood Commision) Commissioner Rhonda Hamilton (6D06) to monitor the air quality in Buzzard Point, have provided more details and clarification.
Does the wording match the reality?
One of the primary allegations leveled at the ready-mix facilities in Buzzard Point, specifically Vulcan (officially known as Virginia Concrete), was that they had violated the Clean Air Act (CAA) and Clean Water Act (CWA). Given that Superior – one of the two ready-mix facilities in the area wasn't at the time in violation of any EPA regulations – we didn't focus on their operations. Vulcan, whose permit is currently up for renewal, was.
Stephen S. Ours, P.E. Chief, Air Quality Permitting Branch, DOEE, told me "there have been occasional violations of air quality regulations at [Vulcan] over the years" but that "DOEE routinely performs inspections at the facility and works with the facility to improve dust control performance through enforcement, voluntary control, and permitting actions."
In early April of 2018, the EPA issued a "Notice of Violation" to the ready-mix facility for operating a "dust collector outside of" the "permitted operating parameters." In late September of the next year, the EPA and Vulcan "reached an administrative settlement" that required testing at the source to "ensure that emission standards [had] not been violated."
Then in January of 2020, Ours says that the operator "performed the required source testing" satisfied the "injunctive relief requirements of the order."
"Results of the testing showed compliance with the particulate matter emission limits in the permit despite the deviation from permitted operating parameters. As a result of this test result, Vulcan has requested a revision to their permitted operating parameters."
Ultimately, Vulcan requested that their permitted operating procedures be revised, which is what they told me back in April – that they had "signed a consent order to fix the language in the permit."
Does this mean that community concerns over excess particulate matter in the air over the last several years were unfounded? Perhaps the claims of gritty air and "dust bombs," as ANC Commissioner Hamilton called them, were more based in outrage and the appearance of violations, not fact.
Dr. Hsieh, made a similar point in an email exchange with me, too. She said that based on the monitoring they've been doing since 2016, the data "showed no evidence that [the] U.S. EPA limits for particulate matter (PM) were exceeded."
"Does this mean that the air at Buzzard Point has been safe?" she continued. "Or, does it mean the current U.S. EPA limits are inadequate for protecting human health?"
Dr. Hsieh said that a major component of the ambient dust from the ready-mix facilities, PM10, which includes dust from construction sites, and landfills, among other sources and is any particulate matter in the air with a diameter of 10 micrometers or less, was higher in Buzzard Point during their study. Over a 24-hour average, it exceeded the World Health Organization's (WHO) limit of 50 microgram per cubic meter. The EPA's limit is three times that at 150 micrograms per cubic meter. The EPA considered the air safe, she says, but the WHO did not.
"DOEE has the opportunity to follow stricter guidelines than [the] U.S. EPA, and we hope that they will decide to, especially since vulnerable populations are particularly susceptible to adverse health outcomes from poor air quality."
All the community stakeholders I spoke with, including Dr. Hsieh, pointed to higher rates of asthma in the traditionally Black communities surrounding Buzzard Point, as well as those who didn't have asthma but later developed it. Combining the two groups puts the rate of asthma at 65%, according to Dr. Hsieh. "This is an important finding because it indicates that asthma in the neighborhood may be higher than in other parts of the District (8.7% in Ward 6 and 12.7% in the 20024 zip code), and that asthma may be even more prevalent than indicated by current diagnoses."
Evidence from previous studies indicates dust is and will be a problem
Another detail I tried to suss out, was whether or not dust, and more generally, PM, was still as big an issue as the community said it was.
Ours reassured me DOEE was aware of the problems with the pollution at Buzzard Point, especially in the past, but that "there have been substantial improvements in recent years as a result of facility closures, improvements in operations, roadway improvements, and completion of various construction projects." He also said that currently they have been working with the EPA to "ensure [CAA] compliance at the facility," as well as "routine inspections of the facility to ensure compliance with fugitive dust regulations and the existing permit."
They, like Flemming from Vulcan, also told me that more work needed to be done, though.
In reviewing Vulcan's pending permit applications, Ours explained that they are "evaluating opportunities for further improvements in dust control from the facility, including those proposed to DOEE by the community."
Going back a few years when Audi Field was under construction, Dr. Hsieh said they focused on PM flare ups – "short-lived PM events"– and not longer 24-hour or annual averages.
During the construction of the soccer stadium, DC United agreed to put several real-time monitors at fence level around the stadium. "PM10 at the fence line was not to exceed 100 micrograms per cubic meter in a 15-minute average," Dr. Hsieh said. "If it did, DC United construction was to take action to mitigate the dust." She also told me that one monitor, located in someone's home, hit the "action level" multiple times a week.
"Would anyone want that kind of air at their home, especially in homes without clean HVAC systems? Attention to these short-lived, high-intensity events better highlighted the poor air quality due to PM at Buzzard Point." She points out, though, that frequent fugitive PM events went down after the other ready-mix plant, Superior Concrete, updated its facility and equipment and when construction on Audi Field ended.
The irony is that the ANCs raised the issue of the age and state of Vulcan's facility and equipment in our previous story, even while Vulcan's representative assured me the older facility and equipment did the job and was safe.
As for that CWA violation, the answer I got from DOEE was less definitive.
Ours pointed out that the Vulcan facility has a "National Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) industrial stormwater permit," but that they are a "Significant Noncompliance (SNC) facility." The noncompliance comes from Vulcan regularly failing to submit "discharge Monitoring Reports (DMRs)" but DOEE has not observed them discharging any pollutants.
"Our office has documented minor housekeeping issues, but no other violations beyond the failure to submit DMRs (paperwork violation) have been identified. We must defer to the EPA regarding the SNC DMR violations."
The EPA's Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) report for the facility can be found here.
Loose ends: permitting, public comment periods, and real-time monitors
Another final concern raised by the ANCs, was that a public comment period hadn't been opened into Vulcan's renewal permit, and as of our last correspondence, it would allegedly happen soon (but with no specific date).
Ours from DOEE confirmed this, saying they were reviewing comments from the ANC and expected "to issue a draft permit for public comment in the near future." He also assured me that Vulcan was currently operating under an active permit. "Their old permit has been extended, as allowed under DC regulations, to allow for further evaluation of their application before proposing a new draft permit for public review."
He mentioned that DOEE was looking into community requests to have more active air quality monitors in the area "but has not yet made a determination on what will be included in the draft permit."
Speaking of air monitors, there are five official monitors placed around the District. These are the 24-hour monitors we mentioned in our last story, and Dr. Hsieh says the data from these monitors becomes available after quality checks before periodic updates. It bears repeating that there are obvious gaps in 24-hour air monitoring systems that real-time monitors could address.
"They [real-time monitors] can be placed more densely so that neighborhood-level differences in air quality can be characterized," said Dr. Hsieh. "They can report in real time (on apps, online) in shorter time intervals (10 minutes or 1 minute, for example) so residents can use the data to mitigate exposures."
The difference, though, between current monitors and real-time monitors is one of legality. "High readings at DOEE monitors can lead to legal action, but real-time monitor readings carry no legal weight, and it’s hard to get governments to take action based on their reading."
Dr. Hsieh says this is understandable because real-time monitors can give out different readings and are subject to "variability in influences from temperature [and] humidity." The chemical composition of particulate matter also leads to different readings. She says the EPA is looking into ways to "standardize and evaluate data" from the lower cost, real-time monitors, but it's still under development.
What remains to be seen as more development goes up in Buzzard Point and the demolition of the old South Capitol Street Bridge begins, is what steps the city will take to mitigate pollution and dust in the area. There is also the pending public comment period for Vulcan's permit renewal.
Furthermore, as noted in our previous story, there is an impending study being conducted by American University and Washington Trinity University that seeks to expand the network of real-time monitors. Perhaps that data will finally help persuade the city to act in the best interest of the community's health.