Sustainability

A Conversation with Tommy Wells, D.C.’s Environmental Czar

On April 22 the annual Earth Day observation takes place, celebrating the 1970s origins of an environmental movement designed to raise public awareness of the depletion of natural resources. And while the initial focus charted deleterious impacts of oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife, Earth Day has also grown to incorporate tips, efforts, and legislation aimed at reducing that depletion. Today, the movement engage an aggressive effort to end global warming and promote clean energy, including solar and wind. Hundreds of grassroots organizations around the globe who partner with public sector entities seek to find innovative ways to clean up the environment and to create a sense of urgency aimed at changing behaviors and influencing public policy to protect the planet.

In the District, the Department of Energy and the Environment tackles environmental issues affecting D.C. residents. Director Tommy Wells, former Ward 6 Council member, remains impassioned about the agency’s mission – “to improve the quality of life for the residents and natural inhabitants of the nation’s capital.” Wells, along with the agency’s 350 employees, work to protect and restore the environment, conserve natural resources, mitigate pollution, increase access to clean and renewable energy, and educate the public on ways to secure a sustainable future.
The Washington Informer was pleased to spend time recently with Wells in his office at 1200 First Street, Northeast, where he shared with us the agency’s work and his vision for ensuring a sustainable future for the District.

HOW HAS CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACTED LIFE IN THE DISTRICT?

We’d never heard of a derecho in the city before, but it was a storm that knocked out power for about two weeks. Then, we just had a storm come through here about two weeks ago with the highest recorded winds in the history of the District of Columbia. It was about 60-70 miles per hour when it came through, and it was devastating. Thirdly, D.C. is positioned on a tectonic plate. We’re sinking while at the same time the water’s rising. Since the 50s, our water level has come up 11 inches, the fastest you’ll find on the eastern seaboard. The evidence of that is at Hains Point. When it was built, it didn’t flood, but now any time you go there at high tide, it’s flooded. It wasn’t built that way. And, the last three years were the hottest three years on record. We had the hottest day on record last February. As the climate changes, we’ll also see changes in the bugs, birds, and things that grow here due to the impact on their habitat.

HOW ARE YOU EDUCATING PEOPLE ABOUT ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES AND ITS IMPACT?

Sustainability 2.0 includes getting information out and holding meetings to engage residents in the Sustainable D.C. Plan. We’ve had 45 neighborhood meetings so far with a heavy emphasis in Wards 5, 7 and 8. We’re doing phone polling, and it’s our way to enrolling people in our sustainable future.

HAS THE BAG FEE BEEN SUCCESSFUL?

It’s extremely successful. In about 6-8 months, the use of disposable bags went down by 65 percent. Fast forward, after about eight years of the bag fee, the use is still down by 65 percent. It immediately went down about that amount and no deeper. It’s hard to gauge now that we have more grocery stores throughout the city, which means more bags, but the amount of revenue we’ve raised has been steady. A nickel brought about behavior change automatically, and then it stopped. We still believe a five-cent fee is fair enough and as a result, we’ve seen about a 70 percent decrease of disposable bags in our rivers.

The main purpose of the fee was to get in between the consumer and the retailer to force them to ask you, “Do you need a bag with that?” Sometimes bags were given unnecessarily. It’s a fee; not a tax. All the money raised goes to the Anacostia Riverworks Initiatives, which includes a free boat tour, which I would advise everyone to take. The tour gives residents a chance to see how the fee is working and how very successful the bag bill has been.

WHAT WOULD YOU TELL PEOPLE WHO ASK, “WHY IS THERE A FEE ON MY WATER BILL TO CLEAN THE ANACOSTIA RIVER WHEN I’M ALREADY PAYING A FEE FOR A BAG WHICH ALSO GOES TO CLEAN THE ANACOSTIA RIVER?”

The main thing with the bag fee is to get the bags out of the river, and the water bill fee is meant to fix the combined sewer overflow. To fix the sewer system problem, it will cost $2.7 billion. Ratepayers, including the D.C. and federal governments, will have to pay it. We’re putting in more than 15 miles of tunnels, a little larger than a subway tunnel, to hold this water. We just completed about 7 miles. So, while the Anacostia is getting cleaner, we’re working to get the sewage out.

THERE SEEMS TO BE A LOT OF FOCUS ON THE ANACOSTIA. TALK A BIT MORE ABOUT YOUR GOALS FOR IT.

With this year being the Year of the Anacostia, our goal is for that river to become swimmable again. Now, with the sewer system being diverted from the river, we’re not that far from being able to swim there again. The only thing that’s particularly bad in there is the bacteria E. coli, but I’m sure the river will become swimmable again in our lifetime.

Also, Kingman Island is a very interesting place. Through leaving it alone, it’s become a wild island with indigenous growth. For the Mayor to take an inner-city island and spend $4.7 million to make it a protected area, it will be interesting to see how it will become a natural learning environment for children.

WHAT IS IT LIKE TO PROMOTE SUSTAINABILITY UNDER A TRUMP ADMINISTRATION?

That’s a very serious question. The federal government used to have a role in giving grants and pushing innovation to bring states and countries along. If one state were doing a great job at something, the federal government would encourage partnerships to teach other states how to do it, as well. The federal partnership is evaporating quickly; we have to network between states without the federal government, which is no longer a partner, and that is a huge loss.

WHAT ARE THE CURRENT PRIORITIES FOR THE DOEE?

Our three largest priorities are, first, restoring the Anacostia River. That’s what the Bag Bill does, and that’s what experts, including the National Park Service, are focused on – cleaning up the river and getting rid of DDT, PCBs, chlordane and all of the nasty stuff that’s rested in the sediment. It’s what small and large organisms eat, that gets eaten by the fish, that we consume. So, we’ve got to clean that stuff up.

Second, we receive funds from all of the folks that buy energy in the city. A certain amount of that energy must be generated in the District from solar power. And if you can’t find it to buy it, you must give DOEE alternative compliance payments, and then we aggregate those monies and put them out as grants to put solar in the city. We’ve been doing about 120 to 140 homes a year where we put solar on top of residents’ homes for free, and we prepare their roof if we have to, as well. We also now are putting solar on commercial buildings, and the benefits of the energy there can go to low-income residents.

We’ve got a new project where we’re going to put ground mount solar panels in Oxon Run Park that will generate about 2 megawatts of power, and that’s a lot of power. That will serve up to 400 residents’ homes in that neighborhood across the river and will cut their power bills in half. That area of Oxon Run Park in Southwest, which is owned by the National Park Service, was selected because it is a Brownfield that is too toxic for development. *Note: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines a brownfield as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”

(3) With the new Trump Administration trying to pull the U.S. government out of the Paris Accord, the Mayor led a group of mayors to Mexico City where they decided not to pull out of the agreement to combat climate change. We’re going to provide leadership. So, it is my agency that will help to make D.C. the healthiest, greenest, and most livable city in the United States through Sustainable 2.0 and our Ready D.C. Plan.

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