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Ground Zero
Spring Valley is one of Washington's loveliest neighborhoods. it also was a site for testing bombs and chemical weapons. while the army says there's little to worry about, New Evidence and excavations point to danger Hidden under Ground. By Harry Jaffe
Comments () | Published December 1, 2000

Rick Feeney was cutting the grass one day in 1992 when he heard his black retriever, Kerry, yelping and whining in the construction site next to his home on Glenbrook Road in DC's Spring Valley. He looked over to see the dog in the freshly dug earth, shaking her head, liquid coming from her eyes and mouth. When Feeney went to help, his own eyes started to water, the skin on his arms started to sting, and a bitter taste filled his mouth.

"Feels a lot like I've been gassed," Feeney thought, recalling his training in the Navy, when he had walked through clouds of tear gas. He went home and hosed off himself and his dog. But every time he mowed his lawn, his eyes watered and his nose ran. Finally the hole was covered over and the house completed--now the home of American University president Benjamin Ladner.

A few months later, on January 5, 1993, construction workers digging trenches for new houses in Spring Valley a half mile northwest of Feeney's home unearthed what looked like rusted bombs. In a matter of hours, Army bomb-removal units arrived by helicopter from Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. With gas masks on their hips, they determined that the canisters were World War I-era chemical mortar rounds and 75-millimeter shells. Some

were live and might contain mustard gas, a lethal chemical that caused blindness, skin blisters, and internal and external bleeding in 400,000 World War I soldiers.

Nan Whalen, who lives near the trench, was at home when an acquaintance phoned.

"My God, Nan, what's going on in your neighborhood?" asked the caller from her car. She had been invited to a dinner party at Vice President Dan Quayle's home on the Naval Observatory grounds and had just heard that it might be canceled. The Army was worried that a live shell might detonate and send a gas cloud drifting over the vice president's house.

That first night the Army held a meeting for the community at a church on Westmoreland Circle. Officers told worried residents that the bombs had been left by soldiers who had used the area to produce and test chemical weapons in 1918. They assured residents that everything would be taken care of.

Rick Feeney stopped an Army officer on the way out and told him about his reaction to the fumes from the property on Glenbrook Road.

"I assumed it was tear gas," he told the officer, "or something that made you feel that you had been gassed."

The officer turned to an aide. "Make sure we take a look at this," he said.

The Army never contacted Feeney, a writer and event manager who works at home. If it checked out his story, he never knew about it.

Through the rest of 1993 and into 1994, the Army recovered 141 munitions, including 42 poison-gas shells. In stages, officials evacuated 72 homes in the zone around the bomb pit while soldiers searched for buried munitions; in 1994, 130 families were asked to move out, mostly during weekdays, while bomb specialists searched for more ordnance.

In 1995 the Army Corps of Engineers issued a report describing its explorations and excavations. In sum, it said it had completed its work; Spring Valley was safe. The situation there required "no further action."

 

Five years later, that seems far from true. Scientists and engineers have determined that the Army missed a number of pits containing buried munitions and toxic chemicals. The search for bomb pits and contaminated soil and water is under way once again. Prodded by DC environmental scientists, the Army Corps of Engineers launched a fresh operation to find and remove hazardous materials from the area. So far it has unearthed twice as many munitions as were found in 1993. Evidence of more toxic chemicals is mounting.

Documents reviewed under the Freedom of Information Act and interviews with investigators and scientists reveal that:

* The Army plans to evacuate two buildings at American University and five houses early next year while it excavates what is believed to be a disposal site for laboratories that produced lethal munitions.

* The Army has found high levels of arsenic in a part of Spring Valley once called "Arsenic Valley" because of its proximity to a lab that used arsenic in making chemical munitions. Rick Feeney's home lies in its center. Within its borders are a childcare center on AU campus and multimillion-dollar mansions on Indian Lane. The federal government lists arsenic, a poisonous heavy metal, as the most hazardous on its toxic-substance list. Health officials have warned people in Spring Valley against eating food grown in their gardens.

* Theodore J. Gordon, chief operating officer for DC's Department of Health, has asked the Corps to ensure that the groundwater in Spring Valley is clear of toxic chemicals, especially arsenic. Some of Spring Valley's groundwater drains toward Dalecarlia Reservoir, which supplies water to DC. Is there arsenic on the bottom of the reservoir? "That's a possibility," Gordon says.

* Two people who lived in houses built over a 1918 training trench used to test chemical weapons contracted aplastic anemia, a blood disorder that occurs when the bone marrow stops making enough healthy blood cells. The cause of the disease is unknown, but environmental toxins are suspected.

* According to internal documents and interviews with investigators, five federal agencies, led by the EPA and including the FBI, are investigating whether "criminal false statements" contributed to the Corps' determination in 1995 that "no further action" was necessary.

While Spring Valley residents learned in 1993 that their neighborhood was built on top of a chemical-weapons proving ground, documents show that American University and the Army knew at least in 1986 that there were "possible burial sites," according to documents filed in lawsuits and reports obtained through FOIA. American University knew as early as 1921, when a campus publication referred to buried weapons on campus.

Lawsuits have been filed in the case. Former district judge Stanley Sporkin ruled in 1997 that the Army had a "duty to warn" people about the buried bombs:

"The Army in this case created the hazard and literally 'covered it up,' " Sporkin wrote in ruling on a lawsuit filed against the Army by a developer in 1996.

The Spring Valley investigation is more than a story about buried munitions; it's also about buried intentions and hidden agendas. At critical junctures a community's health and welfare appear to have been sacrificed for bureaucratic infighting and concerns about public image. And the people of Spring Valley have been in conflict over whether to protect their property values or to actively investigate potential risks.

There is now no hard evidence of cancer clusters in Spring Valley, but there's no question that the health risks deserved scientific scrutiny years ago.

Says Kenneth Schuster, a US Environmental Protection Agency scientist investigating Spring Valley: "There is an indication of high incidence of cancer and rare blood diseases. Are they related to the buried munitions? We don't know, but I'm pushing for an epidemiological study.

"There's a lot of unfinished business in Spring Valley."

 

The first news of bombs beneath the soil in Spring Valley broke two weeks before the inauguration of Bill Clinton. The 690-acre community, tucked into DC's far-western corner above the Potomac River, just south of the Maryland line, is home to many of the region's political and financial leaders. Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson once lived in Spring Valley. The Hechingers and other wealthy merchant families dwell on its winding roads, as do Brendan Sullivan and other big-name lawyers. Media stars like WRC-TV anchor Jim Vance live there. An inexpensive home might sell for around half a million, but mansions can go for $4 million.

The day the bombs were found in a new development of tract mansions, many of the old-line families repaired to the Chevy Chase Club for cocktails. Local lore had it that children playing fort in the woods would sometimes come across real bombs. Not everyone was surprised by the Army's discovery of an old bomb pit.

In briefings that first week, the Army explained how the American University campus, on a hill overlooking Spring Valley, had been used for producing and testing the most lethal chemical weapons available at the time. Some scientists describe it as the World War I version of the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb in 1945. After making the weapons on the campus, the Army tested them in the farms and hillsides below. Soldiers tied dogs, goats, and other animals to stakes, set off chemical bombs, and watched the animals struggle and die. Mangled dogs showed up in nearby yards. Soldiers called it Death Valley. Only later, when development began in 1927, did it become Spring Valley.

The Pentagon has a name for old forts and military bases: formerly used defense sites, or FUDS. Spring Valley became the nation's first FUDS with chemical-welfare agents in a residential neighborhood. When the Army Corps of Engineers took over the cleanup shortly after the bombs were found in 1993, it named the task Operation Safe Removal.

After the initial shock of seeing armed troops on their streets, the people of Spring Valley took the temporary occupation good-naturedly. Neighborhood kids thought it was fun to see men and women in fatigues and neon hazardous-waste suits.

"I don't think we were unduly upset or frightened," says Elizabeth "Betty" May, who was moved out in the first round of evacuations. She and her husband, Ernest, have lived in the neighborhood for 40 years. A developer made a nearby office building available during the evacuations; locals who dubbed it "the refugee center" were a bit embarrassed when the Red Cross showed up to serve coffee and doughnuts--and there they were in their Nordstrom cashmeres and Prada pumps.

In the course of the Army's two-year search and cleanup operation, no one got hurt, and no one seemed to get sick. Life on the streets with the 150-year-old oaks gradually returned to normal. The Mays watched from their second-floor guest room as Army helicopters lifted off with excavated chemical bombs.

"They did the right thing," says Betty May, sipping ice water from a blue crystal glass on her back deck. "They found it, they cleaned it up so people can live here."

 

Richard Albright, an unlikely bomb hunter, is swinging a magnetometer a few inches above a lawn on Sedgwick Street. It's a sunny afternoon a week before Halloween. Goblins and witches decorate the front yards. The yellow metal detector emits a high-pitched whine when it senses underground metal. Now it starts to squeal.

"This is the inside trench," Albright tells me. His business card describes him as an environmental scientist with the DC Department of Health. It also says he's an "ordnance and chemical weapons expert." He takes another step. A few feet away, the magnetometer squeals again. "This is the outside trench."

In 1918 the Army dug a pair of trenches to simulate those at Verdun, France. Black-and-white photos of what were called the Sedgwick Trenches show them rigged with wires used to detonate experimental bombs. The Army carved holes in the trenches to store shells. These trenches are now buried below the lawns of Sedgwick Street.

"So what happened to those shells?" Albright asks.

Albright is a tall, big-boned man who grew up making explosives for fun in Michigan; now he brakes for squirrels and roots for the Redskins. He's 57, with a wife and two children. He wears thick, tinted glasses, has a bushy mustache, and often sweeps the graying hair from his face. He walks and talks slowly. He owns a sailboat and takes it out on the bay.

"What I want to know is what did those soldiers do with the duds," he says. Army scientists kept detailed records of their experiments. Albright found that some of the bombs were labeled UXO, short for unexploded ordnance. "Standard operating procedure was to dig a pit and bury them."

I ask if it might be necessary to dig up the trenches to find the bombs. "That's under discussion," he says. "Intense discussion."

Albright points to two houses across the street from where he's testing. Part of the discussion involves the fact that a five-year-old girl and an elderly man who lived in those houses both contracted aplastic anemia.

"There may be no connection at all between the trenches and the deaths," he says. "But it is something that points to a need for more investigation."

 

Back in 1995, When Albright took a job as an environmental specialist for the DC health department, he didn't know about the chemical weapons in Spring Valley. As part of the Defense Environmental Restoration Act, the District received a grant to fund two positions that would monitor military bases and former defense sites. Albright took one of the jobs. He decided to review the Army's findings on Spring Valley.

He found discrepancies and errors.

"There is clearly more here than meets the eye," he told Don Campbell, his partner in the environmental division at the time.

"Seems they have left a lot of contamination in the soil," Campbell said. "We've got problems."

Albright and Campbell were well suited to their task. Campbell had been head of the city's hazardous-waste program. He has a master's degree in occupational safety and health and has written books on the subject.

Richard Albright was so good with explosives when he was a teenager that he started a business blowing up stumps for farmers. He made his first metal detector from scratch. He went to college at the University of Michigan and got a law degree from Wayne State. He did a tour in Army intelligence during the Vietnam War but didn't see combat. He got a master's degree in environmental health and science at George Washington University.

"I became a jack of all trades and master of none," he says. "It made me insecure. I have to ask a lot of questions."

After working as a lawyer at federal agencies for more than a decade, he came to the District government, first as an attorney and then as a scientist with the health department, which allowed him to indulge his fascination with ordnance.

Albright spent days in the National Archives creating a fresh history of the chemical-weapons program from original documents. He learned that in 1917 the race was on to develop weapons to break the stalemate in Europe. The government set up its own testing and production facility, leased land from the university at the top of Ward Circle, and called it the American University Experiment Station.

Under war footing, the Army established Camp Leach on the university grounds and brought in 100,000 soldiers to develop and train with the new weaponry. The Army also built labs and gathered 1,200 chemists and engineers to research and produce lethal weapons. It was the world's second-largest poison-gas production facility in 1917 and 1918.

Records showed that labs were pumping out hundreds of pounds of mustard gas compounds, arsenic, and other poisons daily. These substances were loaded into shells, mortar rounds, or glass jugs and detonated on leased fields beyond American University. In one area known as the old mustard field, an area 500 feet in diameter was repeatedly covered with mustard gas. That circle is now at 49th and Sedgwick streets.

On the Corps' latest map of Spring Valley, 52 "points of interest" are depicted with little red triangles that denote 1918 features such as "circular trench," "ground scar," "old mustard field," and "shell pit." On the American University campus, the map shows gun pits, a chemical-research laboratory, an explosives laboratory, and a bacteriological laboratory.

At the end of the war, the experiment station and Camp Leach were quickly dismantled. What happened to the chemicals and hundreds of shells?

"A lot were taken away," Albright says. "We think plenty were buried. That's what we're looking for."

 

Priscilla Holmes and Robert Herz-Stein were looking for a reason to celebrate in the spring of 1995.

Their property on Woodway Lane, across the fence from American University, has two World War I-era bunkers used for weapons testing. In 1993 the Corps of Engineers sampled the concrete, the air, and the soil for more than a year. Finally, the Army declared the bunkers clean.

To celebrate, Holmes and Herzstein invited their neighbors and some of the Corps brass to their home for a 1920s "flapper party." The military men came in World War I uniforms. They gathered around the piano and sang "Over there, over there . . . ."

"Over there" could have meant over the fence, 100 yards away, where the Army four years later would find hundreds of bomb parts and contaminated pieces of lab equipment in a pair of burial pits.

Like many people in Spring Valley, Holmes and Herzstein wanted to believe the Army had taken care of the poison problem. They wanted to believe their property values were not in jeopardy, their health was not at risk. But they didn't have all the facts.

In the early days of Operation Safe Removal, the Army had inundated the community with information. There were daily press releases and frequent meetings. It had divided the community into nine zones and named volunteer zone captains. It made medals for the captains.

Still, some residents fretted.

"Will we ever be sure this place is totally clear of munitions?" asked Edward Stevens, a Department of Defense employee. "You live in a property of considerable value, and it could be worthless if it is found to be like Love Canal or the Texaco oil spill."

Developers and real-estate agents scoffed at the notion that the land was tainted.

"Frankly," said Edward J. "Ted" Miller Jr., president of W.C. & A.N. Miller, the developer of Spring Valley, in March 1994, "we could market this as the safest area in the world after the careful scrutiny of the Army."

 

Construction workers found out first if a property wasn't safe. In the summer of 1996, a stone's throw from the Holmes/Herzstein property, landscapers planting a tree in front of AU president Benjamin Ladner's home on Glenbrook Road were overcome by fumes that burned their eyes. They had unearthed laboratory glassware and broken bottles filled with chemicals.

American University called in environmental specialists to investigate. Apex Environmental found levels of arsenic in the soil 28 times above what the EPA considers acceptable. It also found sulfuric acid, a breakdown product of mustard gas, and hydrochloric acid. Wearing protective gear, the environmental specialists decontaminated the trucks that had come in contact with the soil. The firm checked inside the house and declared it "acceptable for occupancy."

When Richard Albright found out about the lab glassware and the chemicals still in the bottles, he asked the Army to test the contents. According to him, the Army said they were chemicals from a science or photo lab.

"At least one of those broken bottles contained an arsenic compound," Albright says. "The arsenic reading coupled with the age of the bottle lead us to believe its origins were the 1918 laboratories."

The workers were friendly with Rick Feeney and used to play with his retriever. They told him about the chemicals and their reaction. The Army told Feeney the chemicals were apparently pesticides and that that parcel of land was EPA's jurisdiction.

Albright investigated further and found that five workers building 4825 Glenbrook Road had fled the site in May 1992 when fumes from broken lab glassware and contaminated soil caused pain in their eyes and lungs. Suffering from eye pain and burning skin, some of the workers went to a hospital emergency room.

It was beginning to look as if both Ladner's house and 4825 Glenbrook had been built on top of a laboratory-waste dump.

An environmental contractor called in said the soil was contaminated with trace amounts of Silvex, a banned herbicide. But concentrations were so small that a DC health-department scientist said it was "ludicrous" to think it had sent the workers to the hospital.

Dirt from Ladner's homesite next door smelled so toxic that it was refused at the Lorton dump in Virginia, according to the environmental contractor. It was trucked to the Fort Totten Metro site in the District, but when the fumes sickened a bulldozer operator, the National Park Service ordered it taken from the site.

Albright also discovered that construction workers grading the driveway at the house next door to Ladner's in 1992 had broken a glass bottle and gone to the emergency room with pain in the eyes and burning skin.

"One of the workers still has black spots on his skin," a DC Department of Health memo says. "Their symptoms were indicative of exposure to a vesicant chemical warfare agent (i.e., lewisite)."

 

This was Richard Albright's introduction to the "dew of death." Albright first heard of lewisite in Spring Valley in a report by Army General George E. Friel, who was in charge of the bomb-removal operation in 1993; the report said some glassware might contain lewisite.

Albright read that report in 1995 and went to the Archives and the Library of Congress, where he scanned old issues of the American Journal of Chemistry. He found that lewisite was discovered in the spring of 1918 by a team of scientists headed by Dr. Winford Lee Lewis at Catholic University. Across town at the American University Experiment Station, chemists worked in total secrecy to perfect production of the poison.

"Of all the toxic substances listed above," Albright and Campbell would write in their report, "lewisite is the most deadly. It is thought to be seven times more lethal than Mustard gas. It has been called the 'Dew of Death' as a single drop on the skin could be fatal."

The first batch of lewisite was on ships heading toward Europe when the armistice was signed, according to a book on chemical warfare, A Higher Form of Killing.

Albright found that 30 percent of the toxic agent in lewisite is arsenic, which the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) ranks as the number-one hazardous substance, topping lead, mercury, and benzene.

"High levels of inorganic arsenic in food or water can be fatal," the registry says. "A high level is 60 parts of arsenic per million parts of food or water (60 ppm). Arsenic damages many tissues, including nerves, stomach and intestines, and skin. Breathing high levels can give you a sore throat and irritated lungs."

Low levels of inorganic arsenic can cause symptoms ranging from nausea to abnormal heart rhythm. "Long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic may lead to a darkening of the skin and the appearance of small 'corns' or 'warts' on the palms, soles, and torso."

The National Safety Council lists arsenic as a "known carcinogen that has been shown to cause skin and lung cancer."

The EPA, in support of regulations to lower the levels of arsenic in drinking water, said "there is adequate evidence of carcinogenic risk by both inhalation and ingestion," and it described arsenic as "the only carcinogen where exposure through drinking water has been clearly demonstrated to cause human cancer."

Arsenic is a naturally occurring substance. The average background level is around 5 parts per million. Some soil tests in Spring Valley showed arsenic levels of more than 3,000 parts per million.

 

The first skirmish between the Army and the District took place in April 1997, when the Army Corps of Engineers brought its big guns to the mayor's conference room. A cadre of munitions experts and generals from the Corps' North Atlantic Division sat across the table from Ted Gordon, Richard Albright, his boss Jim Sweeney, program manager Angelo Tompros, city administrator Michael Rogers, and David Watts, then head of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

Albright and Campbell had presented their report to the Army Corps of Engineers a few months earlier. Comparing their archival search to the Army's Operation Safe Removal, the two environmental scientists listed the chemicals used in 1918 and said:

"Only a few of these chemicals have been tested for at the site, and then only at isolated locations. No random grid sampling of soil and groundwater was done. No survey has been conducted to determine if there are any adverse health effects to the residents of the area."

Moreover, they said, the Army's "limited scanning" had found evidence of 2,000 metallic objects underground (anomalies), but only 87 had been excavated.

"This failure to fully investigate all buried metal is magnified by the inadequacy of current detection equipment," they said. "After completing a major portion of our research, we became convinced of an immediate threat to the health and safety of residents of the site."

The report recommended a complete survey of Spring Valley's 600 acres for bombs and toxic chemicals. It also called for groundwater tests and a health survey.

The DC researchers implied that the Corps had botched the job and needed to start over. In response, the Corps disparaged Albright privately and told his boss, Ted Gordon, he was "off the wall," Gordon says.

During the three-hour April session, colonels and majors and scientists said all the bombs had been accounted for and removed.

David Watts took over the meeting. According to Gordon and others at the table, Watts said he had served in Vietnam, and he compared the Army's misreporting of dead soldiers in body bags to the Corps' counting of bombs in Spring Valley. His implication was that the Army was lying.

"Our dealings with the Corps were very adversarial," recalls Campbell. "They didn't really want to acknowledge what we were finding there."

 

Then Albright retrieved a black-and-white photo that became a crucial piece of evidence in the hunt for contaminated soil.

In January 1993, when Erik Olson heard about the discovery of World War I munitions in Spring Valley, he recalled hearing that his grandfather had buried weapons when he was stationed at American University in 1918. He called his mother and asked: "Do we have any photographs?"

Addie Olson found the trunk she thought might contain her father's memorabilia. She opened it and discovered more than a dozen perfectly preserved photos.

In one photo, a soldier is bending over a row of ceramic jugs wrapped in protective cloth. He is dressed in the typical World War I uniform of the American Expeditionary Force: flat-brimmed hat, pants tight around the calves and tucked into boots. The jugs, called corboys, are filled with the liquid ingredients of mustard gas.

On the back of the photo he had written: "The most feared and respected place on the grounds. The bottles are full of mustard, to be destroyed here. In Death Valley. The hole called Hades."

The soldier was Sgt. C.W. Maurer, Erik Olson's grandfather. Olson, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, immediately contacted an Army official in Spring Valley, but no one came to get the pictures. A year after he first called, the Army came to his office, copied the photos, and added them to their files, but they never made a concerted effort to find the burial pit.

Richard Albright first heard of the Maurer photo when an Army historian referred to it at a January 1997 meeting. Albright requested a copy. It was the first hard evidence that full bottles of toxic liquids had been buried in Spring Valley.

One thing was certain: No one had located the "hole called Hades."

Richard Albright went to the Archives again and unearthed an album of black-and-white photos showing the Army's earthworks in 1918. He also found aerial photographs from 1927 and 1937 that allowed him to see how the 1918 trenches, buildings, bomb pits, and potential disposal sites looked before Spring Valley was developed. He paid for copies out of his own pocket.

Albright and his colleagues scoured the aerial photos for ground scars. These showed up on the aerials as light areas where earth had been disturbed or places where nothing would grow. They used the photos of soldiers as clues to where trenches or burial sites might be.

Albright and his colleagues met with the Army Corps of Engineers again. They brought the aerial photos. "Look at these ground scars," Albright said. "You've got to find these dump sites."

The Corps wasn't eager to reopen its investigation. So in late 1997, Albright issued another report. Armed with fresh information about high arsenic levels, he said the Corps didn't adequately test for arsenic; it should assess the health risks again after testing for arsenic and other toxic heavy metals, including barium, cadmium, and thallium.

The Corps' failure to properly test for arsenic contamination and notify Spring Valley residents of the results, Albright wrote, "increases the risk of contact through certain ordinary homeowner activities such as vegetable gardens and excavations."

 

The DC department of health asked two federal agencies to prepare human-health-risk assessments for Spring Valley. One report came out in 1997.

"The risk-assessment results indicate that persons in the Spring Valley neighborhood are not exposed to unacceptable levels of carcinogens or noncarcinogens," the EPA said, with the exception of the heart of Arsenic Valley, including the South Korean ambassador's home and the adjacent American University property.

The ATSDR concluded: "The most recent sampling information available from the US Army and the EPA do not indicate that adverse health effects might occur as a result of exposure to these soils."

Both of the reports were based on soil testing done by the Corps of Engineers between 1993 and 1995. In the view of Richard Albright and the DC health department, the Corps' original soil sampling was flawed. Not enough samples were taken, and many of the composite samples gave false readings.

"Risk assessments are worthless unless they're based on good data and good science," says Albright.

The ATSDR report noted that not all of the toxic chemicals tested at the American University Experimental Station had been included on the analysis of the soil samples. Referring to the fumes that sickened construction workers at the university president's house in 1996, the agency's report stated: "Chemical-warfare agents and their degradation products were not included in the soil analysis."

 

In February 1998, three years after the Army issued its "all clear," it found the most toxic pits in the valley.

Aerial photographs had shown a possible bomb-burial pit along American University's southwest boundary. The Corps had placed it near the Kreeger Building but dismissed it after a cursory search. Albright's 1927 photos showed a pit in the same vicinity, and he asked the Army to look again. The Army realized it had been off by 150 feet. The disposal pit was just across the American University line, which put it in the garden of the South Korean ambassador's residence at 4801 Glenbrook Road.

Even before the Army started excavations in early 1999, ordnance specialists found an empty 75-millimeter shell in the Korean garden. When they looked deeper, they started unearthing bombs, shells, bottles of chemicals, metal drums, and other debris. In July, workers digging in the yard hit soil that started to smoke. It burned for hours. Later that summer two workers were overcome by fumes and taken to the hospital.

After a year of digging, the Army had found more than 623 pieces, including bomb parts and contaminated refuse. Fourteen items still had "chemical-warfare agent," the Army said, but a number of the shells containing mustard gas and arsenic had leaked. Some of the smoke rounds and explosives were intact, with fuses.

Once the bombs and bottles were removed, the Corps told the Koreans it still had to clear the trees, remove at least a two-foot layer of dirt, and replace it with clean soil. The process is ongoing.

Richard Albright then turned his attention to a forested hillside a few hundred yards away, on American University property, dead center in "Arsenic Valley."

 

Because the army chemists had been mixing lethal potions in labs on American University campus back in 1918, Albright figured they must have needed a place to dump their glassware and used chemicals.

Some of the 1927 aerial photographs showed scars on the hillside between the Kreeger Building and Rockwood Parkway, but the Army had not checked. Albright asked the EPA to take samples.

On April 19, 1999, while the Army was pulling bombs from the Korean ambassador's garden, Albright and EPA contractors donned rubber boots and started taking soil samples on the embankment. At one point Albright walked down the hillside and noticed water coming from a spring. It was orange, which might mean it was colored by metals, perhaps iron. He bent down and saw broken glassware in the leaves. He picked up a few pieces and put them in a bag. He walked to the top of the hill to tell Major Brian Plaisted, who heads up the Army Corps of Engineers operation from a trailer behind Sibley Hospital.

The Army collected some glassware and sent it to its archaeologist, who said the items were not of 1918 vintage.

Albright asked the EPA to take more soil samples closer to the spring and to test for arsenic in the water. These tests showed high arsenic levels in the soil; arsenic in the surface water was 75 parts per million, and the creek sediment was 188 parts per million.

Still, the Army was unmoved.

"The Corps' response was that their lawyers had concluded that there was no proof that the arsenic was from the operations of the former American University Experiment Station," says an October 15, 1999, internal memo by Dr. Lynette Stokes, chief of DC's Bureau of Hazardous Material and Toxic Substances.

The same memo noted that the second-highest arsenic reading in Potomac and Anacostia River sediment was found at the northern tip of Theodore Roosevelt Island, not far downstream from the discharges of Spring Valley.

 

The army realized it was time to start telling the people of Spring Valley about the arsenic. It convened a public meeting at Operation Safe Removal headquarters in its trailer behind Sibley Hospital in January 2000.

Colonel Bruce Berwick explained that new tests had turned up high levels of arsenic. He said the Army wanted to hold a larger public meeting to publicize the arsenic problem, and he presented a newsletter that announced "high arsenic levels in Spring Valley."

Some of the Spring Valley residents balked. They disagreed with the need for more public meetings, and they took issue with the wording in the newsletter. They asked the corps to revise the language so that it talked about arsenic having been found in one place, behind the Korean ambassador's home.

Ken Schuster, the EPA's senior scientist monitoring the Spring Valley investigation, was surprised. He said he believed that arsenic levels could be dangerously high in a number of "points of interest" across Spring Valley. He asked why the residents were so reticent to go public.

"Simple," said one resident. "Property values."

The tension between personal property and personal health took center stage when Nancy Dudley rose to speak. She said that her family had lived on the property that is now the Korean ambassador's residence. She said both her parents had died of cancer, her mother at age 57.

"What is a point of interest to you was my backyard," Dudley said. "That's the earth where I grew up. That stream is where I played as a child.

"My mother worked in the garden for hours and hours," she said, "and I am wondering what may have been in the soil."

Berwick said, "Thus far, we've found nothing to indicate a health link."

 

Robert Dudley JR., Nancy's older brother, suffered from rashes so severe as a child that he would rake his skin all night long.

"Sometimes I had to sleep with restraints on my arms to tie them to the corners of the bed to keep me from tearing up my skin," he says. "We all went to the doctor often."

Dudley told his story when he and his brothers and sister were interviewed by the Corps and federal and local health officials last spring. Robert Dudley, 51, the oldest of six children, flew in from San Diego for the session.

At the meeting and in subsequent interviews with The Washingtonian, Dudley said he and his siblings had suffered from severe skin problems growing up on Glenbrook Road.

Dudley's parents were avid vegetable gardeners. The land around their home provided them with fresh food from spring to fall. "It was as if we had been raised on a farm," he says.

When Dudley's father and mother died from prostate and liver cancer, respectively, in 1984 and 1986, he did an informal survey of cancer in the neighborhood. "Both were very conscious of diet, and neither smoked," he says. "Was there some external cause?" He traced East Creek, the stream by his house that has been shown to have high arsenic levels.

"We got an awful lot of circumstantial evidence of cancer," he said. "Three to four houses had been visited by cancer--at relatively early ages in some cases." His uncle and aunt, who'd lived a few houses away, had died of prostate and a blood-related cancer.

In the mid-1980s, Robert Dudley was sufficiently concerned that he sent a letter to his senator, California Republican Pete Wilson, asking him to look into a "possible external cause" for the cancer. Dudley mentioned a local legend that the Army had used the area for training. Wilson thanked him for the letter and referred it to the Army. The Army responded that it had found no evidence of contamination.

In 1993, when the buried World War I munitions were discovered in Spring Valley, Dudley wrote the Army asking if there might be chemicals in the soil where he grew up. The Army responded that any chemicals were at "a very low level," Dudley says.

"I was preparing to let the thing lie, figuring the institutions would get out the truth," he says. "Then I got a call last year from the Army alerting me to the high levels of arsenic."

 

In the summer of 1999, after Richard Albright provided the Corps with more evidence, the Army agreed to investigate the American University hillside.

Contractors found bottles and lab materials during the summer and winter, but according to a Corps report, there was no proof at first that chemical-warfare material had been dumped on the site. Then, on March 30, workers uncovered a broken carboy, one of the containers used for holding acids and dangerous chemicals. A device used to measure chemicals in the air "detected lewisite," the report says. The workers covered the hole and evacuated the hillside. They returned the next day wearing protective suits, collected more samples, and quit the site again.

The Army stopped the dig, covered the pit with sandbags, and marked it with orange-plastic fencing.

Albright asked chemists at the University of Maryland to sample the hillside. Their tests showed arsenic levels at 3,300 parts per million.

"That's a lot of arsenic," says Allen Davis, professor of civil and environmental engineering, who evaluated the samples. "Compared to soils around smelters or mining waste, it's at that level or higher."

The Corps decided that it will evacuate two American University sites--the Kreeger Building and the Hamilton Building, used for administration--when it excavates the hillside in January. Six households along Rockwood Parkway will leave their homes during the dig. Residents call them "the Rockwood Six."

Why the evacuations?

"If we find a five-gallon container of lewisite . . . we want to be prepared," says Major Plaisted.

The Army calls it the "maximum credible event."

 

Richard albright put two clues together last February and figured he had found the "hole called Hades," the one shown in Sergeant Maurer's 1918 photograph.

The Army thought it was one of the two bomb pits on the Korean property. Albright was not convinced. Where, he asked, were the ceramic carboys? The clues Albright was gathering led to a burial pit next door.

One clue was the 1992 incident in which workers building 4825 Glenbrook broke a glass bottle and wound up in the emergency room with burning skin and pain in their eyes--signs of lewisite. And in January, experts at EPA's Environmental Photographic Interpretation Center told Albright they had located the "hole called Hades" behind 4825 Glenbrook.

Tom Loughlin and his family had moved into 4825 Glenbrook Road in 1994. The brick house lies between the Korean ambassador's residence and AU president Ladner's home. It's two doors away from Rick Feeney's house.

When Loughlin bought the house from developer Lawrence Brandt in 1994, he was not aware that the Army had found chemical weapons a mile or so away in upper Spring Valley. But the developer had disclosed that Silvex was found on site, so a buy-back clause was included in the agreement. In essence, it said he could sell the house back to the developer if the government produced any indication of a hazardous substance. He says he was told that Silvex was not harmful.

The Loughlins had been living in the house with their two children for almost five years when the Army notified them that the Korean ambassador's garden next door had chemical-weapons debris and live World War I-era bombs. The Army moved the Loughlins out of their house while contractors dug out the bombs.

"I am so cynical, but they say it's okay for us to be here," Kathi Loughlin told the Baltimore Sun in 1999. "What about kids playing in that area and making mud pies and eating dirt? What would happen to them?"

On February 11, Richard Albright wrote a memo saying he now believed that the "hole called Hades" was behind the Loughlin house.

Tom Loughlin didn't see the memo, but he had seen enough of the digging next to his home, and he'd spent enough time in hotels with his family. In September he exercised the buy-back clause and sold the house back to Lawrence Brandt.

The Loughlins declined to be interviewed, but a source involved in the matter says: "I don't know that it's over. There are substantial issues about who knew what and when."

 

American University officials knew about the chemical-munition experiments and the potential for buried munitions long before they were discovered in 1993.

In March 1986, when the university was preparing to build its sports complex and a new dormitory, AU officials contacted the military "to express concern that chemical munitions, bulk containers of chemical agent, and other chemical material were buried at the university or in adjacent Spring Valley following World War I," according to the Defense Department's planning document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

The university based its "concern" on two pieces of evidence. First, the American University Courier, a campus publication, had reported in April 1921 that permission had been given to bury munitions on university property and specified that $800,000 worth of munitions had been buried on the grounds. Second, another campus publication had reported in about 1957 that construction of the university's television station was halted in the early 1950s when a bomb was discovered.

The Army investigated in 1986. An ordnance detachment from Fort Belvoir surveyed the construction site of the sports complex and found nothing. Then the Army Toxics and Materiel Agency researched records at the Carlisle Barracks, questioned the reports of buried munitions, ran out of money, and called off its search. "The issue of burial can only be resolved by an actual discovery of munitions," the Army wrote.

At the same time, the EPA scanned aerial photographs of American University and found suspicious spots. The EPA report mentions a chemical-warfare building, bomb pits, trenches, and proving grounds on AU campus. It goes on to describe trenches and burial pits beyond the campus in what is now Spring Valley: "Significant findings or potential problem areas include possible burial sites, shell and bomb pits, trenches and possible test areas."

The EPA report never got beyond the Army or American University.

 

The early investigations were not lost on Richard Albright. In his first report, he wrote, "Although the American University site was identified by the federal government in 1985, stakeholders [neighbors and local authorities] were not informed until the buried munitions story emerged in the press in 1993."

Anthony Morella, the university's general counsel in 1993, says the university's property lines used to extend farther into Spring Valley. The university once owned the property that is now the Korean residence. Morella, husband of Maryland Congresswoman Constance Morella, referred questions to Donald L. Myers, who was a party to the 1986 investigations and has been AU's treasurer and vice president for finance since that time.

Myers declined to be interviewed for this article. He referred questions to David Taylor, assistant to president Benjamin Ladner. Taylor has represented the university at most of the meetings with the community and the Army. In an interview, he said he has a "vague recollection" of the 1986 investigations of munitions on the campus, but he called the EPA aerial photographs "problematic."

Now the university has to deal with evacuating buildings early next year and seeing environmental contractors testing soil across the entire campus.

"It hasn't been checked out adequately," Albright says. "We have a lot of problems over there. The bottom of the athletic field is very busy, ground scar after ground scar. It's got to be checked out."

David Taylor says he's not sure that new tests are planned, but he adds, "It wouldn't surprise me if they did that."

Taylor, former head of public relations for the university, says the Corps has been "very up-front" and dismisses the coming evacuations as "standard operating procedure."

 

One place that concerns district officials is the daycare center by the parking lot near the two buildings to be evacuated. On the fall afternoon Albright and I toured the hillside where he found the high arsenic readings, children a hundred yards away were digging in the sandbox and running around the trees. What's more, the Army Corps of Engineers' 1918 map shows that a "Gun Pit"  was located less than 50 feet from the daycare center and an explosives lab was about 200 feet away.

The soil in and around the daycare center has not been tested, Albright says. Taylor says the center is for children of AU faculty and staff.

"We see it in the same category as all the other parts of the campus," he says. "We want to make sure it's a safe place, free of contaminants in the soil."

I asked Taylor if the recurring investigations into potentially toxic soil has caused problems with recruiting students. "Not at this point," he responded.

Asked to comment on the chemicals found around his house, the scheduled evacuations of campus buildings, and the continuing search for toxic chemicals on the campus, AU president Ladner replied through Taylor that it was "not worth his time to get interviewed on this topic."

 

But the fear of arsenic at least one casualty: AU's community music school at the Kreeger Building.

"It ruined nearly all of our enrollments," says Julian Trail, director of the preparatory music division. "The arsenic was the reason people pulled out."

Established in 1956, the AU program was one of the oldest music schools in the city. Until this year, Trail says, it was a moneymaker, especially the program for toddlers and children up to six who came on Saturday mornings with their parents.

In January parents learned about the arsenic levels in the soil close to Kreeger.

"They didn't want their kids crawling around on rugs that might have arsenic on them," Trail says. "And the university wasn't giving them any information."

Parents pulled children out until only four were left. "Parents had every right to do that," he says.

Naima Prevots, chair of the performing-arts program, says enrollment declined "for programmatic reasons."

 

Alvaro Rodrigues-Tirado's dog used to play on the hillside and in the stream on American University property that was found to have high arsenic readings. The dog, a Shar-Pei, died two years ago.

Rodriguez-Tirado, minister of cultural affairs for the Mexican Embassy, lives with his wife and two children in one of the houses on Rockwood Parkway to be evacuated next month. The embankment is about 30 yards from the family's deck. From it he can see the sandbags over the suspected laboratory disposal pit and the plastic fence around the excavation zone. He says his dog, who was four, became ill about three years ago.

"The vet told me something was very wrong with the dog," Rodriguez-Tirado told me. "He wasn't producing enough red blood cells." After three blood transfusions, the dog still didn't respond.

Rodriguez-Tirado told Major Plaisted about the dog when they spoke at the end of the summer. Plaisted had called Rodriguez-Tirado to tell him about the evacuation and invite him to his office.

"He said it was nothing special," Rodriguez-Tirado told me. "He said they had found some glassware. He said he'd check into what might have happened to our dog."

Plaisted didn't explain that lewisite was the reason for the evacuation, Rodriguez-Tirado says. The Corps maintains a Web site with regular Spring Valley project updates, but although the October 3, 2000, posting noted the scheduled "cleanup" of the lab disposal site in January, it failed to mention the evacuations and failed to tell readers that lewisite caused workers to evacuate the site--though its own internal report makes the lewisite finding clear.

Maria and George McKitterick have lived for more than a decade a few doors down with their three children. When they moved in, East Creek, which begins on the American University hillside, ran through their yard. The Englishman who had lived there for many years had built a pair of bridges over the creek. When the yard eroded, the McKittericks put in culverts and covered the creek. Maria, an avid gardener, used to plant up the hillside on her side of the fence.

"Every time I dug I would find pieces of glass," she says. "I used to take a bucket with me just for the glass and stones."

The Army told the Rockwood Six, American University, and the Koreans that it intends to replace the sediment in the first few hundred feet of East Creek.

"Now we come to find out there's arsenic," she says. "We're dealing with a different deck of cards."

 

Federal investigators interviewed Richard Albright recently as part of their investigation into "criminal false statements" that may have been made back in 1995 and 1996. Albright won't comment on the meeting.

"Some would allege a coverup or that things were swept under the rug," says Major Brian Plaisted, 41, sitting at the conference table in the Operation Safe Removal trailer behind Sibley Hospital. He's dressed in camouflage fatigues and combat boots. "I'm not one to see a conspiracy around every corner.

"Maybe there were hints," he allows.

"I haven't seen any issues with the sampling we've done," says Plaisted. "We are trying to work with the District of Columbia to do more sampling. We may go back to do some checking, but I don't think we'll find any contamination."

Plaisted does admit one oversight: "We looked in the wrong place [for the bomb pits found on the Korean property]. Maybe that was a mistake."

Major Plaisted probably will be out of the picture by the time the investigations are complete and Operation Safe Removal is over. He expects to retire next June, and he estimates that the Corps will be in Spring Valley for two more years. From 1993 to 1997, the Corps spent $18.6 million on the Spring Valley project; since then, it has plowed in another $22 million, and Plaisted says he'll spend another $3 million next year--for a total of nearly $44 million.

There is still work to be done--for instance, the matter of the bombs found on both sides of Dalecarlia Parkway, the road that runs from Westmoreland Circle to Loughboro Road and Sibley Hospital.

In 1918 it was a "static test fire area," which means the Army detonated bombs in place by wire. In 1993, contractors flagged hundreds of suspected metal objects that might be buried munitions. The Army had the flags pulled up, even though it found four 75-millimeter shells and another mortar shell the size of a scuba tank. Richard Albright has tried to relocate the hot spots.

More worrisome to Albright is his discovery of a document indicating that the Army experimented with ricin in 1918. Ricin is a chemical-warfare material. The document said the Army had filled 75-millimeter shells with shrapnel balls coated with ricin.

"Since one form of ricin is two orders of magnitude more lethal that sarin, any hint that there may be unexploded shells with this toxic so close to our main drinking-water reservoir requires prompt notification to the Corps," Ted Gordon, then DC's senior deputy director for public-health assurance, wrote to the Corps in July.

Sarin is the nerve gas that killed Japanese commuters in 1995.

Plaisted says he is aware of the ricin issue. "We don't know precisely where they were doing that testing," he says. But, he adds, "we see no threat to the water supply."

 

Ted Miller sees no threat to property values in the lovely community his family's development company has been building since 1927.

Miller, 45, the third generation to run the company, says the Army has done a great job in finding chemical weapons and clearing them away. It was Ted Miller who said in 1994 that houses were selling briskly and that the Army's "careful scrutiny" had made Spring Valley "the safest area in the world."

In an interview at company headquarters, he says, "Nobody has whitewashed this. Everybody is taking it seriously, as they should."

Miller took a different position in 1996, when his company sued the Army for $15 million. In the lawsuit Miller accused the Army of "wrongful burial of inherently dangerous chemical and high explosive munitions and contaminated glassware on private land in northwest Washington, DC." The suit said the Army failed "to mark . . . or to otherwise warn the Miller Companies or the public about these inherently dangerous buried objects." It accused the Army of a "negligent investigation" in 1986, of keeping the investigation "completely secret," and of failing to remove the buried munitions and glassware before January 1993.

As for damages, Miller said it had nearly gone bankrupt because the 1993-94 Army cleanup operation virtually closed down the development of Spring Valley West and forced the company to renegotiate loans and partnership obligations. It claimed it had to sell land and houses at fire-sale prices.

The government filed a counterclaim, in July 1998. It accused Miller of making "entirely false" claims throughout its lawsuit, misstating facts and inflating its losses. The government threatened Miller for "knowing presentment of the false statements" to the Army in violation of the False Claims Act.

In December 1998, the two parties settled. The government dropped its counterclaim and agreed not to prosecute Miller. It also agreed to pay Miller $2.1 million.

Ted Miller says his praise for the Army and his lawsuit against the Army are "really not in conflict" and that he's "satisfied" with the settlement.

The Army might not be as satisfied with then-Judge Stanley Sporkin's decision on Miller's original claim, which agreed with Miller's contention that the Army had a "duty to warn" Miller. "When it buried live ammunitions," Sporkin wrote, "the Army had in effect 'booby-trapped' the land."

Some Spring Valley residents believe that Miller's company must have come across World War I weaponry as its workers cleared forests and fields.

"I can tell you we knew nothing about it," Ted Miller says. "We had no idea anything like this existed. For those who say otherwise, I wish they had shared that with us."

 

Rick Feeney's black Retriever, Kerry, died of cancer in January. She was eight years old. "I have no idea if Kerry's death was caused by contact with the chemicals next door," he says. "The vet said there was no way to know."

Are dogs canaries in the mineshaft in warning about cancer-causing substances in the environment? Feeney has lived in the house with his dog and his family for years. Everyone's well, but he wonders: "We cuddled with the dog on the couch all the time. It could be nothing. I don't know--but I don't know."

When it comes to toxic chemicals and cancer, there are more questions than answers. While toxicologists can say with assurance that arsenic causes cancer, it is harder--if not impossible--to say that arsenic caused a particular case of cancer. Feeney lives with these uncertainties: "Has long-term exposure changed my body's immune system? Could a lifetime of avoiding dangerous stuff be done in by exposure to arsenic?"

The only way to determine whether arsenic or other toxic chemicals used in the 1918 tests has had any effect on people's health is to perform a thorough epidemiological study, and even then the results might not be conclusive, experts say.

"We don't have any evidence today that we have any unusual cancer clusters in this area," says Ted Gordon. "We don't want to create panic in the community. It would be totally unfair until the science is in."

 

Alex McBride pushes a stroller up Glenbrook Road across from the Korean ambassador's residence. Her eight-month-old son is asleep in the stroller. It is another clear autumn afternoon in Spring Valley. Across from Rick Feeney's home, a new house is going up directly over East Creek. It is one of many construction projects under way in the neighborhood.

McBride and her husband bought a house nearby a few months ago. They flew in from Singapore and signed for it in three days. They had never heard of Arsenic Valley.

"I hope we're far enough away," she says. "How else can you think about it?"

A few residents of Spring Valley don't want to think about it at all. The Army Corps of Engineers asked to sample the soil on 61 properties in the neighborhood on and around Glenbrook Road. At least ten owners declined.

"Some people just don't like the government bothering them," says Major Plaisted. He shrugs. "Some are elderly folks who get agitated. Others say they've been living here for a long time and they've been doing okay."

Like Betty and Ernest May.

"We've been living here for 40 years and nothing's happened," she says. They used to picnic in the woods where the Army found a bomb pit in 1993. "Those are the chances you take in life. You can be hit by a truck."

Ginny Durrin, a Spring Valley resident and filmmaker who is producing a documentary about the buried munitions, says her neighbors might seem to be in denial. "I'm not saying they're not in denial," she says. "I'm saying they don't have facts.

"If people became aware the Army didn't do the testing right, or didn't scope out the unexploded weapons, or knew the potential danger of certain exposures to arsenic, they would come out in droves. The Army has lulled people to sleep."

Albright and the DC Department of Health are still on active alert.

Says Ted Gordon, "We need to make sure it's all clean and safe, that residents aren't sitting on something that may in the future be dangerous."

Rick Feeney may have been living in a dangerous place for years. He recently developed eczema on his hands. His doctor says it may be nerves, but he still wonders. He holds his peeling palms up and asks: "You don't suppose arsenic does this?" 

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