Digging up chemical weapons in D.C.
World War I, munitions including shells of poisonous liquid mustard
were buried in a then-rural area. The cleanup has forced evacuations at
American University and prompted concerns about illness.
By Bob Drogin, Los Angeles Times
6:54 PM PDT, May 9, 2010
Reporting from Washington
Nielson pushed a joystick, and a video camera zoomed in on three men in
moon suits and gas masks as they prepared to blow up a weapon of mass
destruction less than five miles from the White House.
Later, the crew slid the rusting World War I artillery shell into a
small steel vault and sealed the door. They detonated a shaped
explosive charge to cut the projectile open, and pumped in reagent to
neutralize its contents: liquid mustard, an infamous chemical warfare
The process is "as safe as sliced bread," said Nielson, the operation
leader, at a control panel in a nearby trailer. "Maybe safer."
The destruction of five poison-filled shells and 20 other suspect items
ended last week. But the strange saga of America's most unusual
hazardous waste site is far from over.
Since 1993, the Army Corps of Engineers has removed 84 chemical-filled
shells and more than 1,000 conventional munitions, plus at least 44,000
tons of contaminated dirt and debris, from the verdant campus of
American University and the manicured lawns of Spring Valley, one of
Washington's most prestigious neighborhoods.
The toxic trash dates from 1917 and 1918, when the military leased the
then-rural campus and nearby farms to test gruesome gases. After the
war, soldiers and scientists buried lethal leftovers in unmarked pits,
calling the area Death Valley.
A developer renamed it Spring Valley, and mansions sprouted. Presidents
Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush lived here before
they entered the White House. U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), among other top officials and foreign
diplomats, reside here now.
The Pentagon says 5,000 old arsenals and other former defense
sites may hold hazardous waste. But the bomb hunt here "is the No. 1
priority," said Col. David Anderson, the Army Corps district commander.
"This is the nation's capital."
The Army has spent $180 million and expects to spend $15 million more
to finish the job, Anderson said.
So far, government agencies and independent studies have not found
adverse health effects on American University students or the 4,000 or
so residents of Spring Valley.
"Overall, community health is very good," said Beth Resnick, coauthor
of a 2007 study by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
"Cancer rates overall are low. Mortality rates are low."
She said a new study may focus on several people who lived near the
burial pits and reportedly suffered rare cancers, blood disorders and
other ailments. It's not known if military waste played a role.
For now at least, the oak-shaded streets buzz with lawn mowers, not
public outcry. Property values are stable, and activists acknowledge
that few residents share their suspicion that the Army Corps has
downplayed dangers and concealed data, a charge the Army denies.
"They're deliberately misleading people," said Nan Wells, who
represents part of Spring Valley in local government. "They just want
Tom Smith, another Army Corps critic, said many residents have become
complacent. "We've grown a little too accustomed to having the Army in
our backyards, literally in our backyards, for the last 17 years," he
The yard that causes the most concern is between the official residence
of South Korea's ambassador, Han Duk-soo, and the white-columned house
of American University's president, Cornelius Kerwin. Previous digs
unearthed more than 300 munitions and chemical weapons debris on the
South Korean property and toxic chemicals beside the AU house.
A high fence with barbed wire guards the current excavation, known as
Pit 3. A two-story, tent-like structure covers the hole to prevent
leaks. It also hides the men in hazmat suits and breathing apparatus on
a winding street of stately homes and purple azaleas.
Engineers believed the digging was almost finished until they uncovered
more than 500 pounds of jugs, beakers and other laboratory glassware
this spring. On March 29, a broken bottle spewed smoke inside the
Tests show the fumes came from arsenic trichloride, which is poisonous
by inhalation, skin contact or ingestion. Known as "arsenic butter,"
the compound was used to boost the lethality of mustard, a blister
agent that reportedly caused more than 1 million casualties in World
War I, and to produce lewisite, dubbed the "dew of death," and other
chemical warfare agents.
The find was deemed so perilous that work has been halted until Army
engineers can determine how to safely proceed.
"The concern is they may find a lot more, and there's a real question
whether the air pollution controls are adequate," said Paul
Chrostowski, an environmental scientist who monitors the cleanup for
Kerwin, the university president, was forced to abandon his home for
two years when his yard was dug up. He and his wife moved back last
fall after tests showed the hazard was gone.
"We may have to change our analysis now," Chrostowski said. "He may
have to move again."
The long-forgotten ordnance first made news in 1993 when workers
digging a utility line unearthed an arsenal. Two years later, after
removing 141 munitions, the Army Corps declared the danger over.
But local historians and amateur sleuths found old photos, logbooks and
other records that suggested hazardous waste and explosives were
scattered over 661 acres. Excavations, evacuations and lawsuits have
ebbed and flowed ever since.
Crews have dug up arsenic-laced lawns and spread clean soil at about
140 homes so far, and more are planned. They recently began searching
for debris by the reservoir that supplies drinking water to Washington
after rusting artillery and mortar shells were found in the weeds.
"It's taken years to understand the magnitude and scope" of the
pollution, said Steve Hirsh, the Spring Valley project manager at the
Environmental Protection Agency. "This is really a unique problem."
The long cleanup has put the university in an uncomfortable spotlight.
School officials must balance public safety with public relations,
taking pains not to spark undue alarm among the 11,000 students and
their parents, as well as prospective students.
In 2001, the university evacuated its campus day-care center and closed
nearby athletic fields after dangerous levels of arsenic were found in
Medical tests of the toddlers and others proved normal. But the
day-care center stayed shut until last year, long after the
contaminated dirt was scooped up and hauled away. Artificial turf was
laid on the sports fields, and a girls lacrosse team practiced there on
a recent morning.
Not far away, a backhoe clawed at the soil behind a former fraternity
house. Now used by campus police, the building overlooks a ravine that
was once a dump. The Army will drill under the building this summer to
look for more pollution.
David Taylor, assistant to the university president, said he was eager
to see the Army complete the cleanup. "We told them: 'Do it right. Do
it thoroughly. And then wrap it up.' "
The work draws little apparent interest among students. Only a dozen
people showed up when six experts gathered recently to give
presentations on the cleanup. A senior, Michael Ginsberg, had organized
the panel as part of his honors project.
"Most students don't even know there were chemical weapons here,"
Ginsberg, 21, said in frustration.
Kent Slowinski, a landscaper, leads informal tours of waste sites on
campus and in Spring Valley. He starts at the school's McKinley
Building, where a plaque by the door reads "Birthplace of Army Chemical
"You'll notice it doesn't say anything about developing or testing
chemical weapons on dogs, goats and other animals," he said grimly.
Five chemical rounds have been rendered harmless since April 16. All
were destroyed on a patch of federal property behind Sibley Memorial
Hospital, about a mile from campus. Three held the poisonous gas
arsine, one had liquid mustard and one carried lewisite. Another 60 to
80 conventional munitions will be turned to scrap this summer.
"We considered transporting off-site," said Dan Noble, the Army Corps'
project manager. "But you risk traffic accidents. This is by far the
safest way to do it. Here we have complete control."
The fenced compound looks like a construction site. Front-end loaders
rumble by stacks of blue barrels, filled with arsenic-laced dirt, that
will be hauled to a hazardous waste dump. More fences, cameras and an
infrared laser help protect chemical rounds and other unsafe materials
destined for destruction.
"Some soldier was probably walking out here 90 years ago and a sergeant
comes up to him and says, 'Hey you, the war's over. Dig a hole. Get rid
of all this!' " said Anderson, the Army Corps district commander.
"Could they ever imagine it would come to this?"
2010 Los Angeles Times