Demolition Starts On House Built Above Chemical Waste Pit Near American University

The ground under the building, adjacent to American University, may house materials from World War I coated with toxic chemicals.

By: Harry Jaffe

It’s disquieting to see how easily a $2 million brick house can crumble to the ground. 

Before noon on Thursday, a huge backhoe with a claw started ramming into the side of 4825 Glenbrook Road, a stone’s throw from American University in Spring Valley. The claw chomped through windows and plumbing. The brick walls came tumbling down as if they were Legos. In a day or two, the three-story colonial will be a pile of rubble. 

Toxic waste lies under the rubble in one of DC’s most elite neighborhoods. 

The razing of 4825 is the latest effort by the US Army Corps of Engineers to clean up pits of chemical waste that are a legacy of World War I weapons testing. Facing mustard-gas bombs in the trenches of Europe, the Army summoned chemists to make poisons at the American University Experiment Station. When the war ended and the experiments stopped, soldiers dumped bombs and chemical waste in pits. 

Those pits are now in the yard of the South Korean ambassador’s residence, the edge of American University, and under 4825 Glenbrook. 

Tearing down the house is the easy part. In February or March, bomb technicians will dig under the house. They expect to unearth munitions and glassware coated with toxic chemicals such as arsenic, the major compound in lewisite, a poison dubbed “the dew of death,” because one drop was supposed to be fatal. 

The Army has set up a system designed to protect neighbors from errant discharges of toxic gases. At least one family is asking to be moved, and the entire neighborhood is hoping the new dig will put to rest lingering questions about their health and safety. 

Stay tuned for The Washingtonian’s upcoming coverage of the chemical weapons and the efforts to cleanse a neighborhood.