WASHINGTON — In May 2013, the mayor of the nation’s capital announced that the city would partner with a produce supplier to build what the company called “the most productive urban farm in the world.”
But no one bothered to inspect the site. If they had, they would have found an unlicensed landfill that’s 18 feet deep; 10-foot-high piles of debris including roofing material and insulation; and rusting petroleum containers on the banks of a creek. That’s in addition to what the company and city officials already knew was there: abandoned shipping containers that homeless people use for shelter and a wrecked school bus.
The site is so contaminated from years of illegal dumping that a recent survey by the city estimated it would take $1 million to clean up.
Now, a year and a half after Mayor Vincent Gray’s audacious announcement, the mayor is leaving office and the company is likely to walk away from the project — without breaking ground and despite a $700,000 investment.
The neglected parkland chosen for the project is near the Maryland border on the southeastern tip of the District of Columbia, a blighted section of the city.
“This is pretty outrageous,” D.C. Councilmember Mary Cheh said after an Associated Press reporter showed her photos of the contamination. “Somebody’s got to be held responsible for this.”
BrightFarms Inc., a New York-based produce supplier, was planning to build a 120,000-square-foot hydroponic greenhouse, bigger than an average Wal-Mart and the company’s largest such facility. It would have created two dozen good-paying jobs in a high-poverty area and provided fresh local produce to neighborhoods that don’t have access to it, officials said at the launch. BrightFarms also wanted to partner with city schools to teach kids about farming and healthy eating.
For the Democratic mayor, whose four-year term has been plagued by scandal, the greenhouse project is an example of his environmental and economic development priorities falling short. Democratic Mayor-elect Muriel Bowser, who takes office Jan. 2, has given no indication that she’ll try to rescue the deal.
And if it falls through, the city would have little incentive to clean up an environmental disaster on its own parkland.
After the deal was announced, BrightFarms spent the next year arranging to sell its greens at local Giant Food supermarkets. The company began environmental testing on the site in May and began preparing for construction in August, when employees were shocked by what they found, CEO Paul Lightfoot said.
The piles of debris sit within 50 feet of Oxon Run, a tributary of the Potomac River. Some of the trash is in the waterway. It all needs to be removed because BrightFarms can’t grow vegetables next to potentially hazardous waste, Lightfoot said.
The more expensive problem is the 18-foot-deep unlicensed landfill. The soil is so unstable that the greenhouse can’t be built on a conventional foundation.
Instead, it would have to be built atop concrete support piers, pushing the cost up by $2 million to around $7.5 million. Lightfoot is asking the city for a $1.5 million grant to make up most of the difference. A spokeswoman for Gray said in a statement that “we could not justify that expense to District taxpayers.” The city made no previous financial commitments.
Just last week, the city committed to spend at least $140 million to help build a 20,000-seat stadium for Major League Soccer’s D.C. United. The Gray administration was heavily focused on the soccer stadium in the final weeks of his administration as the mayor looked to shore up his legacy.
Gray’s accomplishments have been clouded by scandal, thanks to a still-active federal investigation of his 2010 campaign. Six people who helped get him elected have pleaded guilty to felonies.
The city’s Department of General Services suggested the land to BrightFarms and is leasing it to the company, but no one from that department or any other city agency did a thorough inspection before the deal was announced, said Mark Chambers, associate director for sustainability and energy at DGS.
“The level of contamination is far worse than anyone thought,” Chambers said.
The property technically belongs to the National Park Service, but it transferred control to the city in 1972. It’s not clear how long the illegal dumping has been going on, but it didn’t stop once BrightFarms showed up — someone cut a lock on the fence the company installed and continued dumping, Lightfoot said.
The greenhouse project could have provided a lift to struggling Ward 8, an impoverished, mostly black section of the city east of the Anacostia River. Both Gray and Bowser have said development east of the river is a top priority.
Absent a commitment from the incoming Bowser administration by Dec. 31, Lightfoot said he’ll leave the District and build his next greenhouse in rural Virginia instead.
“We want to build here. We can build here. We have the money to build here,” Lightfoot said. “But without the city supporting us, a messy site that’s festering is never going to get better.”