Cyclists ride by the Fort Myer Plant in Eckington on the Metropolitan Branch Trail. Image by the author.

The air quality permit of the Fort Myer asphalt plant in Eckington is up for another five-year renewal, with an open comment period that ends with a public hearing on Monday, March 18. That makes this a good time to consider the specifics of this plant and whether it’s reasonable to expect asphalt processing to be a long-term part of the neighborhood’s future.

When I moved to Eckington in 2014, I immediately fell in love with the Metropolitan Branch Trail. The two-mile stretch of the trail from NoMa to Brookland is a crown jewel of DC bike infrastructure. The ride is marred only by the scenery north of Tanner Park: piles of gravel to the east, a rather stinky asphalt plant to the west, and heavy-duty trucks crossing the trail to get from one to the other.

It’s a surprisingly industrial span between two quiet neighborhoods. Residents have agitated to change the land use mix here and in other parts of Ward 5, a fact that you can see reflected in calls for deindustrialization from elected officials like Councilmember Zachary Parker.

Of course, it’s not unusual to see neighbors arguing against an inconvenient but necessary facility. And asphalt plants are necessary: once prepared, asphalt must be trucked to a worksite quickly before it cools and becomes unusable. Maintaining our roads requires a network of nearby asphalt plants, usually at sites within a few dozen miles of whatever’s being paved.

But does this site make sense?

An unusual place for a plant

DC is lucky to have great open data resources. Using the city’s Master Address Repository, we can count exactly how many residential units have been added in the vicinity of the asphalt plant.

How far should our analysis extend? It’s hard to find definitive answers to this question. I can smell the plant on some mornings when I step out of my house, which is a little more than 1.3 kilometers away. The plant’s emissions include things you can’t smell, but this seems like a reasonable threshold to start with.

Edgewood and Eckington have seen amazing growth since the plant’s permit was last renewed in 2019. Within a kilometer of the plant, the number of units has more than doubled.

Whatever balance of considerations was evaluated in 2019 between residents’ and industrial interests needs to be adjusted dramatically toward residents. There are simply lots more people in the area than there used to be.

But it’s not just new construction that’s nearby. There are also a substantial number of schools in close proximity, all but one of which was founded before 2019. These include Noyes, DC Prep, Washington Latin, Hope Community, Two Rivers, Inspired Teaching, Lee Montessori, Harmony, Washington Leadership Academy, Langley, and McKinley. According to data from DC’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), 3,283 students are enrolled at schools within a kilometer of the plant.

To get a more precise sense of the plant’s location relative to nearby schools and residential units, try the interactive map I built.

The above only counts kids. But we should also note that the Carlos Rosario School’s Sonia Gutierrez campus, which serves adult immigrants, is across the street from the Eckington plant. OSSE puts that school’s enrollment across two campuses at just under 2,000 people, and the Gutierrez campus appears to be the larger and newer of the two.

None of this is typical for an asphalt plant. Both the Maryland Asphalt Association and the Virginia Asphalt Association list their members’ plant locations. Using that data, I examined the population density for each plant’s census tract.

The Eckington plant is located in what is, by far, the most dense location of any plant in the District, Maryland or Virginia. Its location is more than forty times as dense as the median tract hosting a DMV asphalt plant.

Promises of less pollution

Asphalt plants pollute; it’s inevitable. PlantDemand, a software product serving the industry, notes that

“Asphalt plants can produce emissions that are harmful to human health and the environment. The emissions can include volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide. These emissions can cause respiratory problems, headaches, and other health issues.”

Asphalt plants mix (and sometimes grind up) aggregate materials with heated bitumen, which means that in addition to asphalt fumes, they produce pollution related to combustion and particulates. The science on air pollution’s effects has been advancing rapidly, and the news isn’t good. Particulate pollution has negative impacts on academic performance, impulse control, and life expectancy.

The science on asphalt fume exposure is less conclusive. The CDC has studied the issue for asphalt workers, but failed to reach solid conclusions beyond establishing that the fumes can irritate tissues and should be studied for cancer and cardiovascular effects.

Encouragingly, the Eckington plant’s permit application proposes substantial reductions in its capacity and emissions. Total output would drop to 240,000 tons per year from a previously-authorized 1.75 million. Throughput would be capped at 120 tons per hour, down from 200. The renewal would also come with reductions in the rate and total for various pollutants, as well as new measures to control particulate dust and educate truck drivers about engine idling laws. Perhaps of greatest immediate interest to neighbors is the plan to install blue smoke condensers to capture the bitumen fumes that permeate the neighborhood when the plant is running.

Pollutants Potential Emissions without 20 DCMR 200.6 and 200.7 Limts1 Potential Emissions with 20 DCMR 200.6 and 200.7 Limits2
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) 47.13 11.29
Oxides of Nitrogen (NO2) 32.13 10.51
Total Particulate Matter (PM)3 25.86 10.67
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) 13.48 3.21
Carbon Monoxide (CO) 212.96 49.55
Total Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs) 4.18 1.41

1. Assumes 1,051,200 tons of annual throughput of asphalt

2. Assumes 240,000 tones of annual throughput of asphalt, consistent with limits established pursuant to 20 DCMR 200.6 and 200.7

3. Total particulate matter values include both filterable and condensable fractions of particulate matter. The values in this table have been calculated incorporating the emission limit being established in the permit for emissions from the dryer/mixer process as discussed in the discussion of 20 DCMR Chapter 2 applicability below

Are these numbers real?

But these promises must be weighed against a history of failing to adequately control emissions that is disclosed in the renewal application itself. The application’s technical support memorandum describes a process for setting emissions limits in which the plant’s output was measured to establish a benchmark. Six measurements were taken by the District’s Air Quality Division (AQD), but half of these had to be thrown out because they were unexpectedly high–in one case, three times higher than they should have been.

AQD attributes this to maintenance problems. It’s great to see AQD carefully reviewing results when establishing benchmarks. But the fact that the plant was operating so far out of its expected parameters raises questions about whether it will be able to comply with new, stricter limits.

Whose backyard, then?

The Eckington plant’s best quality might be that it already exists: any prospective site for a replacement will have its own downsides. It’s easy to find areas in DC that are less dense than Eckington, but many are obviously poor candidates, owing their low density to parkland, cemeteries, or federal buildings. Still, it is true that areas closer to the city’s periphery tend to be less dense. The areas near RFK Stadium and Nationals Park also deserve mention, thanks to their excellent highway access and the possibility of scheduling production around games.

But that assumes that a replacement would be necessary. The Eckington plant isn’t the only one in DC. Brentwood hosts Fort Myer Corporation’s other asphalt plant. And DC’s third plant, by Blue Plains, is in a tract that’s less than 10% as dense as Eckington. If the Eckington plant closed, could these other two pick up the slack? Could suburban plants? It’s a question worth considering, especially given the significant reduction in production that the Eckington plant’s renewal application proposes.

I’ve been neighbors with the Eckington asphalt plant for a decade. There are worse neighbors you could have. I can even admit that the statehood logo on Fort Myer’s storage bins is rather fetching. But the surrounding neighborhood has transformed from a landscape of derelict warehouses and fenced-off fields to one full of condos, parks, breweries, and pickleball courts.

Every year, the plant’s presence becomes more unusual; it becomes a nuisance to more people; the opportunities for better uses of the space expand. Asphalt plants need to go somewhere, but so do people. With Eckington’s population booming, I suspect that more of those people than ever will have something to say about whether the plant’s permit should be renewed.