Update: That May Not Be Sewage on Kennedy Street NW, After All
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."
Photos courtesy of Earl Biglow