Neighbors of the Soapstone Valley came to a recent virtual meeting with DC Water to raise a number of questions about the methods, schedule and communications for a massive sewer rehabilitation project slated to begin in the park sometime in the coming months.
At the December 7th meeting, of particular concern was DC Water’s choice of the steam or hot water cured-in-place pipe (CIPP) method of relining the aging sewer pipes.
The day before, Forest Hills Connection published an opinion piece by Marjorie Share, who initially started looking for alternatives because she was concerned about the large number of trees that were to be removed to make room for large motorized equipment. She discovered peer-reviewed research on suspected carcinogens and other troubling substances released into the air and water by the on-site manufacturing process.
DC Water representatives tried to put attendees’ worries at rest by explaining that styrene, one of the byproducts of installing cured-in-place pipes, is naturally occurring. Some odor is expected, they said, because they are working on sewers, after all. They also said DC Water had set a more stringent-than-required emissions standard, and that they’d had a conversation on that day with Louisiana Tech University. Will Elledge, the senior manager of DC Water’s design branch said a study LTU had completed two years ago “informs our best practices.”
Share raised objections to the styrene assurances and to the research studies DC Water cited.
“Several of the studies you mention, unfortunately, are not peer-reviewed scientific studies,” she said. “They were funded by the industry… There’s a concerted public relations effort and some of the reports are biased.”
Share also noted that styrene is just one of 29 potentially hazardous chemicals that get released by the hot water or steam CIPP process.
“That styrene occurs in nature doesn’t make it safe. Apple seeds have arsenic,” Share later told Forest Hills Connection.
Other community members also raised health and safety concerns, and some asked why the potential environmental impacts of CIPP methods were not included in the environmental assessment completed in 2019. Lois Forster, a Van Ness North resident and retired FEMA floodplain specialist, said the EA was “pretty perfunctory” in that area, and that pollution of the repair methods should have been included. “I don’t think a sufficient review was done here,” she said.
The Soapstone sewer project, once it gets under way, will shut down trail access for two years. The project has been under some form of review and analysis for more than a decade. The first DC Water assessment of the Soapstone sewers in 2011 recommended UV CIPP for relining the pipes that weave through the Soapstone Valley, passing through National Park Service and DC land. The required environmental assessment was completed in May 2019. And the Park Service signed off on the “Finding of No Significant Impact” in April 2020.
Although the issue of air pollution was raised in previous public meetings, public comments on the environmental assessment, and a resolution by ANC 3F, the concerns were never addressed.
At this meeting, another area of concern was the schedule of construction that would impact the homes, schools, businesses and apartment buildings that border Soapstone Valley, including Park Van Ness, Park Connecticut, Van Ness North and Van Ness East.
Nick Shull, who lives in one of the impacted buildings, was critical of the communication process, given that he has worked on large construction projects. He thought it was too little, too late and fed the skepticism in the community. Elledge said they have had many community meetings over the ten years. Shull countered that construction was starting in a few months and the community knew no specifics about its staging or schedule. Emanuel Briggs, DC Water’s construction outreach coordinator, said the agency would soon be “saturating” the area with information, and that once the project is under way, DC Water would send email updates every two weeks with the construction schedule for that period. (To join the mailing list, email Emanuel.Briggs@dcwater.com.)
ANC 3F Commissioner Stan Wall led the meeting, and he pressed DC Water to provide more detailed information about the schedule, and its decision making. A “very clear, detailed staging plan,” Wall said, would “help people understand where you will be and when, as relates to proximity to these buildings.”
“There’s definitely tradeoffs of the different approaches, in terms of emissions, environmental impacts, human impacts, costs, schedule, effectiveness,” Wall said. “I think what the community is asking for very broadly is explaining how DC Water got to this point. Walk us through your decision-making process and the alternatives that were evaluated, and how you landed on this approach.”
David Bardin, a former DC Water board member who has previously written about the Soapstone sewers for Forest Hills Connection, asked that DC Water make public its contract with Inland Pipe Rehabilitation (IPR), the company selected for the project.
Kishia Powell, the chief operating officer of DC Water, ended DC Water’s presentation with a commitment to return to the community with responses to the questions raised, and with a more detailed explanation on their reasons for choosing the steam method.
The virtual meeting had 66 attendees as it began, and 53 when it ended almost two hours later. Eight of them were with DC Water or otherwise affiliated with the Soapstone project.