Eleanor Holmes Norton Wants Family Relocated from Spring Valley Superfund Site

She’s “shocked” the excavation has proceeded while young children live across the street.

By: Harry Jaffe

Updated 2/22: Response from Harold Bailey and inclusion of petition to EPA.

The Spring Valley weapons testing dig—the country’s largest military Superfund site in a residential neighborhood—is making news again, after 20 years of excavations.

DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton on Thursday released a letter sent to the Army Corps of Engineers demanding that the government move a family residing across the street from an active excavation. Norton’s request that the government relocate the family, with two young children, was denied earlier this year.

“I was genuinely shocked to hear Mr. [Scott] Whiteford say that there is nothing that would allow the Army Corps to differentiate between children this young and adults living in the affected area,” Norton wrote in her letter to Corps Lt. General Thomas Bostick. Whiteford heads the Corps’ real estate division. “This conclusion is uninformed and ignores widely available scientific data and studies.”

Norton’s letter (read it below) goes on to express “shock” that the Corps would excavate a home site within yards of the home where Rogerio Zandamela and Christine Dieterich are raising their children, ages 1 and 5. The Corps expects to unearth toxic chemicals in glassware and munitions contaminated with toxic agents such as mustard gas that were used in World War I, when the American University campus was an experiment station for poisonous chemical weapons.

Harold G. “Buzz” Bailey, an attorney who represents the family, last week petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to relocate them under the Superfund Act.

“I am hoping to have the federal agency that has special concern for children to take a fresh look,” Bailey tells Washingtonian. “EPA has separate power to order the Army Corps of Engineers to relocate the family.”

Bailey, an environmental attorney who specializes in Superfund enforcement matters, has represented a number of Spring Valley residents pro bono, without compensation.

“Our next course,” he says, “is Congress and the courts.”

Meanwhile, the Corps recently announced it would commence another excavation for arsenic and other dangerous chemicals on the 3700 block of Fordham Street, Northwest, in the heart of Spring Valley.

The full story of the Spring Valley chemical-weapons testing and the plight of the Dieterich family is the subject of a feature in the March issue of Washingtonian

February 21, 2013

The Honorable Thomas Bostnick
Lieutenant General
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
441 G Street SW
Washington, D.C. 20024

Dear Lieutenant General Bostnick:

I write you concerning a telephone call I received on January 30, 2013, from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) staff, Scott Whiteford, Chief of Real Estate; Dr. Christine Altendorf, Chief of the Environmental Division; Brenda Barber, Program Manager for the Baltimore District; and Jennifer Greer, Chief of the Future Directions Branch.  During the call, Mr. Whiteford informed me that the Army Corps would not relocate Rogerio Zandamela and his family, including his very young children, ages 1 and 5, who live across the street from 4825 Glenbrook Road in the Spring Valley neighborhood in the District of Columbia, where the Army Corps demolished a house and is about to excavate to unearth chemicals that are believed to be buried there.

Since 2000, the Army Corps has removed over 500 munitions, 400 pounds of laboratory glassware and over 100 tons of soil contaminated with arsenic and other hazardous substances from 4825 Glenbrook Road and the immediate area.  Despite this and the very real possibility that hazardous substances remain, the Army Corps decided to reject the family’s request for relocation during the remainder of the Army Corps’ work at 4825 Glenbrook Road.  The family appealed the decision, and I was very disappointed to learn that the Army Corps is rejecting the appeal. 

I was genuinely shocked to hear Mr. Whiteford say that there is nothing that would allow the Army Corps to differentiate between children this young and adults living in the affected area.  This conclusion is uninformed and ignores widely available scientific data and studies.  Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) differentiate between children and adults when assessing environmental risks.  To cite one authoritative source, an EPA handbook, entitled Child-Specific Exposure Factors Handbook, clearly notes that children may be more vulnerable to various toxins and pollutants because “the cellular immaturity of children and the ongoing growth processes account for elevated risk[s].”  The report explains that the exposure of children to certain chemicals can cause neurodevelopmental disabilities and that the “developing brain can be particularly sensitive to environmental contaminants.”  In addition, President Clinton signed an Executive Order on April 21, 1997, which requires all federal agencies to “make it a high priority to identify and assess environmental health risks and safety risks that may disproportionately affect children  …  and shall ensure that its policies, programs, activities, and standards address disproportionate risks to children that result from environmental health risks or safety risks.”  While chemical weapons may pose different risks than some environmental contaminants, the science requiring assessing children and adults differently applies.   

Moreover, as you well know, an increasing number of children today are being diagnosed with various forms of cancer at very young ages.  Although the causes are not always known, we do know that young children are significantly more vulnerable because their immune systems and other natural defenses are not yet fully developed.  We also know that the Army Corps’ relationship with the Spring Valley community is fragile, that the cost of relocating this family is small compared to the overall cost of this years-long project, and Army Corps risks serious negative publicity by denying this request.  Given these facts, I find it unreasonable that the Army Corps would opt to deny the relocation request.

In light of the scientific evidence available to the Army Corps and to the general public, I believe that the only prudent decision is to relocate the family.  This decision is ultimately yours to make, not Mr. Whiteford’s.  I sincerely hope that you will reconsider your decision, with full and fair consideration, consistent with applicable law, rules, and regulations, especially given the troubled history between the community and the Army Corps.


Eleanor Holmes Norton