Environmental designation gives Pigtown a leg up with its cleanup


Four trash bags are piled near a "No Dumping" sign. Old tires are strewn on the sidewalk by a garage. A black plastic bag sails on a gust of wind.

Trash represents a serious environmental threat in Pigtown - along with lead paint, rats and clogged storm drains, according to the Maryland Department of Environment.

That's why the state has designated the Washington Village/Pigtown community an Environmental Benefits District, giving it priority access to state aid and creating a web of support that links federal, state, and local governments to residents and local businesses.

William "Bus" Chambers is the unofficial mayor of Pigtown - and, at age 78, he's frustrated that his neighborhood needs this kind of help.

"It wasn't always like this," Chambers said. "I don't see how they could let the trash pile up like that. You clean it and three or four weeks later, it's back again."

The goal of the program is to flush out "environmental injustice," which director Dorothy Morrison defines as "the disproportionate negative impact of the environment and economic investment" on low-income communities.

Wealthy communities are usually plugged into the political and legal establishments, allowing them to fend off "locally unwanted land uses," such as trash transfer stations or companies that work with toxic materials, Morrison said. They also know who to call when someone is dumping on their turf or when a local business is not in compliance with environmental laws.

"The most important factor is income," she said.

So unwanted land uses tend to be heaped disproportionately on poorer communities, Morrison said, and those neighborhoods often lack the influence and technical knowledge to enforce dumping laws that keep toxic materials to a minimum.

Illegal dumping can devastate a community, said Lesley Smith, executive director of the Washington Village/Pigtown Neighborhood Planning Council.

Dust mites and mold, which flourish in trash, can cause asthma and lung disease, and can aggravate allergies. Rodents and vermin feed on trash and freight disease around the community, she said. Nails, glass shards, aluminum - anything with an edge - pose the threats of injury and infection. And the pesticides used to kill the vermin are also hazardous.

Smith said she has been fighting "crime and grime" in the Pigtown/Washington Village Community since 1998. The council - a group of social workers, local businesses and agencies, and residents - has a structure in place to monitor environmental issues, public safety and community development, Smith said.

Lou Takacs, the council's public safety programs coordinator, said cleanup efforts and community education programs sponsored by the council have been chipping away at the trash problem. Also, partnerships with state, federal and city agencies reinforce the council's efforts.

But he and Smith said they are happy for the extra help. "It's always about self-identification of what the issues are. We can tell you what the issues you are, but MDE can help us connect the dots," Smith said.

The boundaries of the state-designated districts can vary, ranging in size from small neighborhoods to entire ZIP codes or towns.

In 2004, the state designated its first districts in Prince George's County and East Baltimore. The Prince George's environmental benefits included diesel engine retrofits for school buses and compliance assistance for dry cleaners and gas stations. In East Baltimore, public buses and boilers in some schools were retrofitted for cleaner operation, Morrison said.

In addition to Pigtown, nine other neighborhoods in the Monroe-Fulton corridor will join the program this year.

Because the program is still in its infancy, Morrison said that there is no prescription yet for becoming an Environmental Benefits District. Some of the communities, like Pigtown, were referred to the program through their regular encounters with state environmental officials. Others were specifically picked by the state, and some just applied to the program. While the criteria for enrollment changes with each community, all are low-income communities, Morrison said.

Success is not assured, Morrison warned. It depends on the ability of the various levels of government and agencies to collaborate, to come up with the funding and to ensure that the changes stick.

"We're not guaranteeing anything," Morrison said "We're recognizing that you have X-Y-Z wrong with your community, and we are going to help you to the best of our ability."


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