Housing Complex

Update: That May Not Be Sewage on Kennedy Street NW, After All

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Update: D.C. officials said this morning that tests late last week showed the discharge is not sewage. See bottom of post for full update. The original post is below, though it's been updated throughout to clarify with the test results:

Residents of the area around Kennedy Street NW have been pushing hard recently to revitalize the once-bustling retail corridor. They've tried to attract investors who can bring new restaurants to the street. They've pressed members of the D.C. Council and the District Department of Transportation for streetscaping work to make Kennedy Street friendlier to pedestrians.

But there's still not much they can do about what they thought was raw sewage bubbling up from the ground.

Neighbors first noticed the stinky nuisance in early 2010, after the troubled apartment building at 809 Kennedy St. NW was demolished. The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs was notified of the problem in February 2010, when it issued its first fines to the property owner, Richard Deeds of Vienna, Va., for standing water and "an accumulation of human or animal waste or other filth." Deeds was fined $600 and given seven days to fix the problem, which he did not do, according to DCRA spokesman Matt Orlins.

So the city had to hire a contractor to excavate and pump the site. DCRA issued Deeds a special assessment for the cost of the work, which with interest came out to more than $58,000. Further assessments were issued, but the fees were never paid, says Orlins. And the problem came back.

Four years later, it's still plaguing Kennedy Street.

A group of neighbors bought a testing kit from a local hardware store and applied it to the liquid. They found, unsurprisingly, a high level of bacteria contamination, as well as a high pH. And so they once again tried to get the District government to address the problem, emailing every member of the D.C. Council.

"Our children are playing in the streets, our pets are walking through this sewage, we have an adjacent restaurant serving food with liquid sewage running down their sidewalk," neighbor Earl Biglow, who's led the campaign to get the problem fixed, wrote in an email to councilmembers on July 7. "We are not living in a 3rd world country, we are in the nations capital, Kennedy Street is not 3rd World and our kids should not have to be running and playing in liquid sewage. A potential for diseases and sickness, this is a threat to our homes and our health."

"What upsets me is that this has been going on so long, and the government hasn’t done anything to help us improve," Biglow says, upset that with all the effort the neighborhood is putting into improving Kennedy Street, city officials haven't been doing their part. "That’s frustrating to me."

The recently formed Kennedy Street Development Association circulated a petition late last week calling on the property owners to develop or sell the vacant lot and the city to fix the sewage issue and discourage property vacancy along these lines. As of Friday, it had at least 100 signatures.

Biglow says the councilmember for the neighborhood, Ward 4's Muriel Bowser, hasn't been responsive to the community's complaints. "Bowser, in 2010, this was brought up to her," he says. "I’m not trying to throw her under the bus, but we want some results." A spokesman for Bowser did not immediately return a call for comment.

One councilmember, however, did respond quickly: Ward 3's Mary Cheh, who heads the Council's environment committee, asked a member of her staff and DC Water General Manager George Hawkins to look into the matter. According to Orlins, DCRA has received additional recent complaints, and DCRA, the D.C. Department of the Environment, and DC Water are all investigating.

Perhaps, with their efforts, it won't be four more years before the obstinately odoriferous site is cleaned up for good.

Update, 12:07 p.m. Orlins, DCRA's spokesman, writes that "DC Water and DDOE have investigated the liquid at 809 Kennedy and found that it is not sewage." He adds, "The odor created by the discharge is likely a result of sulfur-reducing bacteria expelling low concentrations of hydrogen sulfide. This is not uncommon in vegetated areas that remain inundated, i.e. wetlands.

Based on testing from DDOE and DC Water, the accumulation is not sewage and is most likely perched groundwater."

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Photos courtesy of Earl Biglow

  • Again with Bowser

    Bowser's office has known about this since 2010 and done nothing about it?! All I can say is: Catania for mayor!

    It's sad how many people will reflexively vote for Bowser because she's a democrat but, speaking as a lifelong democrat, this is a very good year to vote for an independent.

  • Jim Ed

    I'm sensing a disturbing trend with Muriel Bowser - "Nothing's a problem unless I get caught!"

    How sad is it that after four years of doing nothing to fix a serious, localized issue in Ward 4, the local community has to hope a different councilmember from across town can lead to a solution? Jesus, what an embarrassment.

  • Steve

    Tell George Hawkins to get off his dead ass and fix it.

  • Why hasn’t this story been removed?

    How did this get published? The whole story is about a sewage leak that doesn't exist. It's the Lennay Kekua of local alternative journalism stories.

  • Ben

    I'm sorry, but I do not find DCRA's resposne on this helpful. The agency has been aware of the problem for four years; they have engaged in nearly $60,000 in work to remediate the problem, which they have not been reimbursed for by the property owner; despite the remediation work, the problem persists.

    Whether or not it is "sewage" seems to me to be an issue of semantics. The leakage is filthy and (by DCRA's own admission) filled with bacteria; it smells bad, is unsightly and unsanitary. Yet it continues, day in and day out, with no one seeming to take responsibility for the problem. (Bowser has of course been silent and/or nonresponsive.)

    So, who is goign to fix this? Whether it's sewage or "perched groundwater" it shouldn't be there and is having a detrimental impact on the quality of life for the community. It should not take four years to address a problem like this. If Mr. Deeds refuses to address it, the city should handle it and place a lien on the property. But continuing to play a game of hot potato doesn't address this issue.

  • To Ben

    Of course it matters whether it's sewage or not; one is harmful to humans, the other is not.

  • Ward 6

    Isn't this a job for the owner and our lame duck mayor? I'm pretty sure Bowser doesn't run any of these agencies... yet.

    Seems like you guys are trying to attach her name to every bad article you can.

  • To To Ben

    "Of course it matters whether it's sewage or not; one is harmful to humans, the other is not."

    False. Whether or not it is sewage does not determine whether it is or is not harmful to humans. The water is filthy. Filthy water can be harmful to humans even if it is not sewage. The bottom line is that this needs to be dealt with. Four years is far too long to have to put up with this.

  • Ben

    "Of course it matters whether it's sewage or not; one is harmful to humans, the other is not."

    Nonsense. "Sewage" is not the only type of ground contaminent that can be harmful to humans. As the commenter above notes, filthy water that is full of bacteria can indeed be harmful to humans, even if it is not technically sewer discharge.

    I have to believe that a significant factor in the malaise around fixing this issue is that it's occuring on Kennedy Street and not, for instance, 14th Street or Connecticut Ave.

    "Isn't this a job for the owner and our lame duck mayor? I'm pretty sure Bowser doesn't run any of these agencies... yet."

    But she is the councilmember for Ward 4, where the problem is located. By default she has at least some responsibility for this.

  • Confused

    There's a lot of conflicting information on the source of the leak. A press release from Councilmember Bowser from 2010 indicates that the leak is "related to the building's internal piping" (link below). Is this not the case? What is "perched groundwater"? Why does the water run even during long spells of dry weather? Why can't we get this fixed?

    http://dcclims1.dccouncil.us/bowser/downloads/pr/3-30-10-809KennedyStreet.pdf

  • Kennedy St resident

    To "Why hasn't this been removed": Because whether it's sewage, similar to a wetland process, or liquid leaching all the contaminants buried at the site during the demolition (or some combination of the last two), it's a huge problem and a major nuisance to neighbors. It discourages people from walking on the street and is a safety hazard when it ices over and people slip on it in the winter. That liquid is disgusting and I promise you it's not as clean as water in wetlands.

    It's been a mystery what it is for the last couple years--and maybe it took this story to get the right agencies to fully investigate and test the water. Now that it's identified I hope the story doesn't end here--I hope the right agencies follow through to get this problem fixed.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kennedystreetnw Myles G Smith

    So, it may well not be sewage. The home test kit our members had can't distinguish the source/nature of the bacteria. Walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, but it may just be a skunk. But skunks still stink.

    The simple fact is that this lot has blighted our community for over a decade for a whole host of reasons. And the outrage from the community goes far beyond the type of bacteria in the runoff.

    - Even if the bacteria is not terribly harmful, it has been running down our sidewalk for four years. Indeed, why do we never see the same on the sidewalks of Georgetown?
    - The foul odor and appearance soils the reputation of our member and friend Luis Manequin, proprietor of Taqueria D.F., in the neighboring building. It costs him business for no fault of his own.
    - Three weeks after their request, the neighbors still haven't heard directly from DC government about the public health implications of this discharge. Maybe there are none, but we still deserve answers.
    - There are other issues with the site, such as a 7-foot deep tube wide enough to trap a child or pet, exposed rebar, trash and weeds, and torn retaining fences. Why has the city done nothing to hold the owners accountable?

    The whole story is much bigger than a water test. https://medium.com/@KennedyStreetNW/this-lot-has-blighted-kennedy-street-nw-long-enough-9ce24846c425

  • Kdy

    This talk is to focused on the foul liquid at the site and what it is. figuring that out is important (and stopping it more important) but what really matters here is this is one nasty place. It stinks, its unsafe, hurts the st and its been a problem for many years and its still is. Mr Deeds created a disgusting unsafe mess. Strike 1. Then we (by we I mean all of us paying taxes) spent 60grand cleaning up his hellhole. He couldn't be bothered todo it himself. Strike 2. Now you tell me he still hasn't paid for cleanup it and after how many years. This man is out. He is a criminal and the city needs to stop him. Make him pay or sell. Or find where he lives and dump the trash and liquid on his front yard and sidewalk. He can figure out what it is. Why is this our problem and not his. No one seems to care about the liquid stink and it's probably not sewage anyway so he shouldnt mind having it in front oft his home.

  • Typical DC BS

    There may be a spring there that was under control when/if the building had a sump pump/drainage system. But when the building was torn down, it may have allowed the spring to bring water to the surface again.

  • drez

    This is an underground spring. These are found all over the city, even in Georgetown.
    At this point- I am sure- the property is metaphorically underwater and the owner (or the LLC he created if he was smart) is not likely to throw good money after bad.
    The solution lays with the administration converting the fines to liens and then auctioning the property to someone who will remediate and build on it, or seizing it and transferring it to a nonprofit who will do the same.
    Blaming Bowser for this is like blaming her for not air conditioning the city sidewalks in hot days.

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  • Dex

    According To DC water, their is a waterline along the back alley, which does non serve this site in anyway. This site previously had a building on it that was there for many years. Any water coming off this site is related to the City not the developer and the site. The city should not be fining the developer, as it is not his fault. Blaming a developer for this issue is inaccurate and shows the lack of information that residents are given by the city and DC Water. This is a public works problem and the city is fully responsible. Anyone who blames Deeds should find out the facts first. This was not created by anyone but the City. The alley needs to be dug up and repaired. Get your facts straight you liberal idiots.

  • Dex

    According To DC water, their is a waterline along the back alley, which does non serve this site in anyway. This site previously had a building on it that was there for many years. Any water coming off this site is related to the City not the developer and the site. The city should not be fining the developer, as it is not his fault. The site is not owned by Richard Deeds. Blaming a developer for this issue is inaccurate and shows the lack of information that residents are given by the city and DC Water in order to cover up their own problem. This is a department of public works problem and the city is fully responsible. Apparently DC Water and DCPW are in a dispute over what agencies should be fixing this. Anyone who blames Deeds should find out the facts first. This was not created by anyone but the City. The alley needs to be dug up and repaired. Get your facts straight you liberal idiots.

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