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Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships

Regional Programs: Washington, D.C.

When people think of the District of Columbia, they envision the Potomac River, the Washington Monument, the Capitol Building, the White House and the various monuments and museums that lie along the National Mall. They think of this city as a powerhouse, with key figures in Congress, the courts and the administration taking center stage, but this is only one side of Washington, D.C. These same people often fail to see the less picturesque aspects of our capital city and the challenges faced by the regular people living here. Among those challenges is the restoration of the Anacostia River, often called the "forgotten river," especially when compared to the more renowned Potomac.

The Anacostia is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the nation, with tons of trash floating along its course, raw sewage spewing into it with almost every rain and 40 feet of toxic laden silt lining its bottom from years of erosion. Many of the neighborhoods that lie along the Anacostia, especially those east of the river in the District's Wards 7 and 8, reflect the neglect and degradation of the river. We have abandoned buildings, brownfield sites, trash, extreme poverty and an unemployment rate almost three times that of the City as a whole. These are but a few of the things that characterize the challenges people living east of the Anacostia face.

One persistent issue affecting the river is the presence of what has been termed “legacy toxic sites” along the river.  Why “legacy” simply because by 2011, the issues of these sites should have been addressed.  There are twelve brownfield sites along the shores of the Anacostia that are known and/or suspected of being long-term sources of pollution affecting groundwater, the river and the adjacent communities.  These sites have long festered and little has been done to remedy the problems.  The DC Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships (EJCP) program has joined with other local non-governmental organizations, including the Anacostia Watershed Society, the Anacostia Riverkeeper, Groundwork Anacostia River DC, Clean Water Action, the DC Environmental Health Collaborative, and the DC Environmental Network to form an adhoc coalition to advocate and organize the community to push the District, Federal, and regional governments, along with the private sector, to once and for all address these issues.  Our initial focus is on the soon-to-be retired former coal-fired power plant owned by Potomac Electric Power Company (PEPCO) on Benning Road in northeast DC.  The DC EJCP was instrumental in its early days in getting this plant converted to natural gas, and to begin the process of decommissioning it completely in 2012.  As that time approaches, the big issue is the possible PCB contamination of the soil on this 70-acre site and the leaching of those chemicals into the groundwater and the river it abuts.  Many of the homes in this section of the city require sump pumps to remove water from basements flooded by underground creeks.  We have recently heard that the water entering these homes comes with odd odors.  Though only anecdotal for now, our coalition and local community leaders are beginning to mount an environmental health study to determine if residents are being directly exposed to toxins in the water.  The PEPCO site is just one of three key legacy toxic sites to be addressed in the next year.  Our campaign is entitled “Turn It Around.”  That is what we intend to do as we build a wider base of citizen activists throughout the District.

The EJCP has also worked with our colleagues in the Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign (BCC).  A recent study conducted by BCC showed that the GenOn Potomac Generating Station, an active sixty-two year old coal-fired power plant in Alexandria, VA is belching dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the air over the District, in particular, Ward 8.  This ward is the most poverty stricken section of the city with some of the District’s highest rates of unemployment, school drop outs, HIV, crime and asthma.  SO2 contributes to the development of respiratory diseases like asthma, and is known to be a trigger for asthma attacks.  Armed with this study, we have mounted a local campaign, “Is the Air You’re Breathing Killing You?” to bring this information to the attention of residents and public officials.  As we held public meetings, we received coverage by local press, National Public Radio and local television.  This “dirty little secret” that affects the well-being of thousands of District residents was no longer hidden away.  As a result, the Mayor of the District of Columbia issued a press release expressing his alarm and upset, charging his Department of the Environment to look into filing a petition with the federal government to have GenOn cease, desist, or mitigate the problem at their plant in Alexandria.  The remedy could cost GenOn upwards of 200 million dollars which might result in the plant’s full closure.

These are but a few of the issues we are addressing in our nation’s capital.  Among some of our other initiatives, we were instrumental in the passing of the District’s, and more recently Montgomery County Maryland’s “bag bills” which have contributed to a significant decrease of plastic bags littering our waterways.  those laws encourage consumers to use recyclable shopping bags or be subject to paying a fee for each paper or plastic bag.  the result fewer plastic bags in the river and new funds to help restore it.  We have worked on establishing new stormwater regulations and promoted the use of low impact development by residents and businesses to minimize the effects of run-off.  We continue to work with our partners in the District’s Urban Forestry Administration and Casey Trees to restore the city’s tree canopy, mitigating run-off, limiting soil erosion and beautifying our communities in the process.  We are also expanding our efforts around climate recovery, encouraging the development and use of alternate fuels and sources of energy, such as bio-diesel, solar and geothermal.  Each of these promises to not only address our regional energy needs but bring new green jobs on-line in the local economy.  we are also starting a “sister communities” project linking residents of the District with communities of color in Appalachia, placing a face on the issue of coal and why we need to consciously conserve.

In being located in the nation’s capital, we also act as a lynch-pin for our colleagues and others from around the country.  In the recent past, we served on the host committee for the Blue Green Alliance’s Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference and now working with members of the American Public Health Association on setting up an eco-tour related to sustainable building and environmental health.

Irv Sheffey, our Associate Field Organizer for the Sierra Club's Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program continues his work in support of individuals and organizations to address the environmental challenges. Though our work will still have a central focus on the restoration of the Anacostia River and revitalization of the communities that lie along it, we are also looking at how those communities can become more self-sufficient and sustainable.  The District will be launching its city-wide, private/public sustainability plan this fall and we expect to play a major role in reaching out to our residents, especially those in historically underserved communities.

I encourage that you re-visit these pages for additional insight to our activities as well as our EJ calendar, to learn more about our work in the D.C. Metropolitan area.

For more information:

  • Read about DC greening efforts. (downloadable PDF)
  • Casey Trees
  • Check out the Pope Branch steam and watershed restoration project, a multi-agency effort aimed at improving the water quality of this small tributary to the Anacostia River in SE Washington, DC. This project is a unique partnership of the District Department of the Environment (DDOE), the Washington Area Sewer Authority (WASA), the District Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) and the Pope Branch Citizens Alliance. The Sierra Club's Irv Sheffey actively supports this project and coalition.
  • The Sierra Club Washington, DC Chapter

About the Organizer

Originally from New York City, Sheffey attended Queensborough Community College and the State University of New York at Old Westbury before completing his undergraduate studies at Antioch College's Baltimore/ Washington campus in Human Services Administration.

Sheffey has served as a caseworker advocating for the homeless and as a youth advocate in Washington, DC. Working to improve service delivery in nonprofits and the public sector, Sheffey has consulted in training staff and administrators in supervisory, managerial, team-building and other human development skills.

Sheffey earned a Masters of Science in environmental studies from Antioch New England graduate school and is a self-trained naturalist. He volunteered as a docent with the New York Botanical Garden, leading tours of their forest for children and adults. He loves trees and first connected with the Sierra Club while planting hundreds of trees throughout Washington, DC as a Citizen Forester with the Casey Trees Endowment.

Contact Us

Irv Sheffey
Associate Field Organizer
Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Program
Sierra Club
3101 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE No. 314
Washington, DC 20020
202-575-1469 (office)
202-299-6503 (cell)

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