U.S. cleaning ammunition dump in D.C.

American University scientists tested toxins on animals at the site

October 01, 1999|By David Goldstein | David Goldstein,Knight Ridder/Tribune

WASHINGTON -- It is a normally quiet corner of the city, an enclave of wealth and prestige whose winding, leafy lanes are home to foreign ambassadors and other members of the capital's upper crust.

It is also home, however, to some ghosts from an antique age, and it's taking more than $25 million and the combined efforts of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the city to exorcise them.

Beneath the green lawns and ornamental gardens of the South Korean ambassador's back yard lies a burial pit for World War I-era chemical weapons and munitions.

It's a dump, for mortars, mustard gas and smoke bombs.

"Death Valley" is how a soldier in 1918 ominously described the site on the back of an old photograph unearthed several years ago. The soldier is shown standing on a hillside -- now the ambassador's back yard -- his face sealed inside a gas mask.

That was 81 years ago. Last month, as the corps' "Operation Safe Removal" continued, some homes had to be evacuated for a few hours when one of those old, but apparently no less volatile, chemical agents -- white phosphorus -- ignited. No one was injured.

"I've been here since 1946," said Mary Gibson, who lives down the street from the ambassador. "The neighborhood sure has changed."

And that wasn't the first evacuation since chemical weapons and other World War I ordnance were discovered buried in the city's Spring Valley neighborhood six years ago. The residents have come to accept the presence of eerie-looking workers encased in protective suits. It's the peril of a past that has come back to haunt the present, and some have a peculiarly '90s way of dealing with it.

"We went to Starbucks to sort of figure out what our plan would be," said Karen Egbert, who, with her two daughters, whiled away the most recent evacuation over frappuccinos. "We had no idea what we were supposed to do, so we just decided that's where we would go."

It started in 1993 when workers laying a sewer pipe uncovered a cache of chemical munitions. Federal and city agencies evacuated the immediate neighborhood. They found and eventually removed 141 old artillery rounds, including 43 that they suspected contained chemicals. All were traced to American University, which sits in the middle of Spring Valley and was an enlistee in the war effort in 1917.

The American University Experiment Station, in the city's upper northwest quadrant, at the time was the second largest chemical munitions research center in the world. A team of 1,200 scientists tested 48 toxic or dangerous agents, including mustard and cyanogen chloride, which poisons the blood. They dug trenches in nearby farmland where they staked goats and dogs as test victims. The scientists hid behind ramshackle bunkers and shacks, waiting to see which animals would die.

Caution was not a watchword. Chemical bombs would explode, and traffic and commerce on the nearby streets would go blithely along. That is until one day in August 1918 when, according to an account at the time, former Sen. Nathan B. Scott of West Virginia and his wife, Agnes, were "gassed," though not injured, when a "cloud" drifted by their home.

"The attitude about hazmat (hazardous materials) was totally different at that point, socially and legally," said Ruth Ann Overbeck, a land-use historian who has researched the history of the experiment station.

The corps spent three years investigating the entire 660-acre Spring Valley neighborhood after the 1993 discovery, concluding it was free of chemicals and safe. But the city's environmental health agency was still leery. It pointed to the 1918 photograph of the gas mask-wearing soldier bending over a pit containing glass or ceramic jugs. The pit, they eventually discovered, was in South Korean Ambassador Hong-Koo Lee's back yard.

The Army determined the containers could have contained liquid or jellied mustard or Lewisite, a chemical weapon that destroys tissue and invades the lungs. Lewisite is so deadly, said Theodore Gordon, a city environmental health official, that "a tablespoon in a room 10 by 10 can kill you in about 30 seconds."

Though the agents could have degraded over time, the Army Corps and city officials nevertheless decided to remove the containers this year.

The excavation of the burial pit is done painstakingly by two workers with shovels. Clad in protective suits with breathing devices, they work in a 10- to 12-foot-deep hole, about 13 by 23 feet in size. The site is enclosed in a "vapor containment structure," a Quonset hut-like building, to keep hazardous materials under wraps.

"They are taking very tight security measures and every care, so we have confidence in how they have done the job so far," said Jong-Dae Park, a South Korean embassy official.

Both the corps and the city seem confident they're nearing the end of their search. They all hope that will be by the end of the year. "A lot of this is hit and miss, because we don't know for sure," Gordon said. "We think we're close to cleaning it up."

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