The small brick building on the corner of Capitol Avenue and Fenwick Street NE is easy to miss. Surrounded by residential homes in Ivy City, the innocuous-looking facility has housed chemical manufacturing company National Engineering Products, Incorporated (NEP), since the 1940s.
Now, Ivy City residents and environmental justice activists are demanding the chemical plant shut down over air quality concerns. Dozens of neighbors and allies gathered Wednesday for a march through the neighborhood and a rally in front of the NEP building.
“I don’t want it here anymore… I can’t sit on my porch,” said Ann Willis, an Ivy City resident who has lived down the street for decades, at the rally. “They need to go, and if I have to come up here every day, then I’ll stand and I’ll talk and I’ll say what I say: They need to go.”
Local advocacy group Empower DC and global nonprofit Namati coordinated the protest event, which attracted nearly 40 attendees to the rally and a neighborhood cookout that followed it. The protesters also signed an oversized greeting card addressed to NEP’s president, Gail Peterson, telling her to “do well soon!”
The crowd included many long-time residents of Ivy City, a historically Black neighborhood in Ward 5, alongside several youth organizers working with Empower DC through the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP).
“It’s kind of sickening to me, because it’s unfair that [NEP is] diminishing our neighborhood and our community, poisoning our bodies—just to make profit,” said 17-year-old Mahki Brooks, one of the SYEP participants and a five-year resident of Ivy City.
NEP makes sealants and insulating materials for military purposes, and the facility uses several chemicals on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous air pollutants list. A study conducted by the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment last summer detected three of them—formaldehyde, acetonitrile, and methylene chloride—at elevated levels in the neighborhood’s air.
Research has linked all three to short- or long-term health impacts, including nervous system issues and increased risks for certain cancers.
Grandfathered In to Lax Pollution Laws
The plant currently operates without an air quality permit from the District. That’s because the facility far predates the federal Clean Air Act, which passed in 1970, and other local and national laws regulating air pollution.
“One of our air scientists that works with us was out here doing some testing, and then the company sent us an email with a photo of her, asking, ‘Did she have a permit?’” Parisa Norouzi, Empower DC’s executive director, shared during the rally. “The irony is that NEP has been operating without air pollution permits for decades—but they have the nerve to ask us if we have a permit when we’re trying to identify the toxins that they’re spewing in our air.”
Similarly, the advocates say current zoning laws prohibit industrial sites within 100 feet of a residence—but facilities like this one get “grandfathered in” under old rules. Right now, the facility shares a wall with a house, where homeowner Shawn Scott is raising her young children.
When she bought the house—purchasing it as part of one of the District’s affordable housing programs—Scott said no one informed her about the chemical plant next door.
Among her six kids, one has severe asthma issues that Scott said worsen when he’s at home. And those who slept in the room closest to a vent have all experienced learning disabilities, she said.
“My kids complain about headaches; my sons have to miss days of school when their migraines are too bad,” Scott says in a short documentary about Ivy City, which Namati produced last year.
“As a mother, I’m very angry because I just feel like, sometimes, ‘did I make the right decision by moving around here?’” Scott, a 16-year Ivy City resident, says in the film. “I thought I was putting my kids in a better environment, but really I put them in harm.”
The documentary, featured in this year’s D.C. Environmental Film Festival, followed Ivy City’s ANC Commissioner Sebrena Rhodes, who serves as a community organizer with Empower DC. Rhodes said that finding out NEP lacked an air pollution permit a couple of years ago spurred her and others to begin the campaign to shut down the facility.
In an emailed statement, an unnamed representative from the company said that NEP is currently working with DOEE on getting an air pollution permit from the city.
“NEPI is in full compliance with all DC regulations,” the email read. “It was recently brought to our attention that in addition to our EPA ID number and other DC Licenses that an air permit is required. As soon as we became aware of this we began our work with both the DOEE and the Regional EPA.”
After the neighborhood began organizing, DOEE conducted its study of pollutants around the facility in summer 2022. The results, which the agency shared in February of this year, showed that the plant likely emits enough formaldehyde and acetonitrile to cause elevated levels in the community downwind of the NEP building.
All in all, the study found seven different compounds that met the EPA’s “screening levels,” a term that means the amount detected calls for further evaluation. Earlier this month, the EPA began its own air quality study in the community. Rhodes said the federal agency has not given community members any clear idea of when the results from that study will become available.
A pilot program in June included Ivy City as one of three neighborhoods to get mobile air monitoring cars to drive around for two weeks, testing the air quality. Data from that study will likely become available in early fall, a representative from the partner company, Aclima, said.
In DOEE’s February presentation, the agency noted that “just because a pollutant is present above the screening level does not mean it is present at unhealthy levels.” In essence, meeting an EPA screening level does not trigger any required action. None of the pollutants met the thresholds set by agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
But the odor from the chemicals—which comes in part from cresol, which smells like tar—is undeniable. During the march leading up the rally, a burning-rubber scent came through the neighborhood.
“NEP is not fair—they put poison in the air,” the marchers chanted at one point. As the odor started to get stronger along Capitol Avenue, one man in the group shouted back: “And I can smell it everywhere!”
Environmental Justice in Ivy City—It’s Not Just About One Polluter
DOEE’s tests from last year also detected some chemicals (including benzene, which is linked to cancer risks) above screening levels upwind of the facility, rather than downwind. That indicates that the community may face other, additional air pollution hazards—a fact that wouldn’t surprise residents.
“Ward 5 [is] saturated with industrial pollutants,” Rhodes, the ANC commissioner, said. “We have the highest concentration of industrial land in the District. We have a lot of businesses that are contributing to poor air quality.”
Empower DC has organized for years around the site of the historic Crummell School in Ivy City, where the city has recently agreed to build a community center with green space included. The nonprofit sued the District in 2013, successfully stopping the city from operating a bus depot at the site. The neighborhood already sees high levels of vehicle traffic, and the air pollution that comes with it, from New York Avenue.
Adding more green space and trees—and preventing more polluters—has become a key goal for neighborhood advocates. The block where NEP operates, for example, has tree cover on only 17% of its land, while the average across all of Ward 5 is 29%, according to a Casey Trees report. More trees can help provide relief from both air pollution and excessive heat.
“We’re actually up to 10 degrees hotter than the rest of the communities in D.C.,” explained Empower DC organizer Andria Chapman. “That’s the heat island effect, because there’s not enough grass and trees around.”
Empower DC plans to keep the momentum from Wednesday’s rally going with a community cleanup event on Aug. 5. Speakers throughout the protest emphasized that they had no plans to quit until the plant shut down completely.
Brenda Ingram, a “proud member” of Empower DC and a resident who has lived in Ivy City for more than 50 years, said her recent cancer diagnosis would not stop her from continuing to organize alongside her neighbors.
“One thing I’ll say about Empower DC—they don’t play,” Ingram said.