Army digs near posh D.C. homes for World War I-era munitions

Hunt continues this week for chemical weapons buried in Spring Valley

April 01, 1999|By Dan Caterinicchia | Dan Caterinicchia,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

WASHINGTON -- A landscape of manicured trees, bushes and Asian ornaments sits on a plateau above the South Korean Embassy in the capital's posh Spring Valley neighborhood.

Red, white and blue tape clinging to trees marks off several sections. The tape does not signify the school colors of nearby American University. Rather, it indicates where the Army Corps of Engineers began digging this week for chemical weapons thought to have been buried decades ago.

The Army is hunting for a site where poisonous weapons were tested and then discarded at the American University Experiment Station during World War I. Many residents say they are worried, particularly about elevated levels of arsenic in the soil.

"I am so cynical," said Kathi Loughlin, who lives next to the excavation site. "[But] they say it's OK for us to be here."

For some neighbors, the most frightful realization is that not even the Army knows precisely where to look or what might be found. The toxins had been disposed with no written records.

In fact, Spring Valley's relationship to World War I weapons had been all but forgotten until January 1993, when a contractor digging a utility line unearthed an artillery round.

43 suspected munitions

After other munitions were found, dozens of homes were evacuated, and the Army began Operation Safe Removal. Within a month, 141 objects were dug up, including 43 suspected chemical munitions.

The Army completed its initial investigation in 1995 and recommended no further action.

But when the D.C. Health Department raised objections to the conclusions, the Army conducted a follow-up inquiry and found that the search failed to include areas where a pit -- containing canisters of mustard gas, lewisite and other poisonous agents -- might have been buried.

The Army began digging for the pit this week. Officials have decided to excavate all the suspect spots, which will force a one-day evacuation of some homes later this month.

"This is not what we expected when we bought the house, and we've been here for five years," said Tom Loughlin, Kathi's husband. "We're dealing with things that happened 80 years ago, and we're just finding out about them now. It's very disconcerting."

Army officials say they realize now that they looked for the burial pit in the wrong places in 1993 because of changes in the landscape that had occurred over the past eight decades.

Missed some areas

When D.C. health officials reviewed the Army's work, they examined a photograph of a World War I-era soldier standing over a pit on the American University site, which confirmed that the Army had not looked in the right areas.

"[The photo] showed one of the most lethal trenches in the entire site, containing about 20 5-gallon canisters of mustard," said Ted Gordon, D.C.'s deputy director of health for environmental health.

Throughout the project, Col. Bruce Berwick, commander of the Army Corps of Engineers' Baltimore District, has stressed that residents are perfectly safe, though he acknowledges that no one will know exactly what is in the burial pit until it is excavated.

Nancy Dudley grew up on the property now occupied by the embassy, and remains one of Spring Valley's 13,000 residents. She has questioned the circumstances of her parents' deaths from cancer, especially that of her mother, who died at age 57.

"I don't think they can assure me that I wasn't exposed to something in the soil in 1954, for example, when we ate vegetables grown in that garden," she said.

Residents are also concerned by elevated arsenic levels found in soil samples. Arsenic is one of the chemical components in lewisite, a toxic agent that was stockpiled during World War I.

"What about kids playing in that area and making mud pies and eating dirt?" Kathi Loughlin said. "What would happen to them?"

Arsenic levels too low

Drew Lausch, a manager for the Environmental Protection Agency who has been working on the project since 1996, said that tests have shown the arsenic levels in the area to be too low to threaten the residents' health.

That confidence is not shared by many residents, including Jeffrey Kraskin. He is one of a handful of residents who serve on the Spring Valley/Corps Community Group Council, which meets weekly with officials to raise issues and receive progress updates.

"The only thing that concerns me is not munitions, but soil contamination," said Kraskin, a Spring Valley resident since 1960. "From Day 1, I don't think that threat has been fully realized or investigated by the EPA."

Bill Harrop, president of the Spring Valley/Wesley Heights Citizens Association, said: "The people on adjacent properties up there are really nervous. The whole thing is so arcane, with so little information available from 1917 and 1918."

Indeed, the Army acknowledges the uncertainty. "We don't know what is there now," said Lucy Lather, a spokeswoman for the Corps' Baltimore District. "We won't know for sure until we [finish] digging."

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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