News & Politics

No End in Sight for Spring Valley Military Debris Removal Project

Eleven years after the project began, the Army is still digging up toxic waste in the neighborhood.

On Monday workmen unearthed another crusty munition from its current excavation of the toxic-waste site on Glenbrook Road, a stone’s throw from the American University campus. The fourth such find pulled from the ground in tony Spring Valley since September, the artifact turned out to be a 75-millimeter shrapnel round buried when the Army abandoned a experimental warfare station after World War I.

The Army Corps of Engineers immediately shut down the Glenbrook Road operation, transported the bomb to a secure site behind Sibley Memorial Hospital, and checked it for explosives.

“The fill was determined to be a riot-control agent that was used during World War I,” the Corps announced Wednesday, saying that it “poses no danger to the workers or community.”

Christine Dietrich, who lives across the street from the dig with her husband and two young children, is not reassured.

“It’s absolutely unacceptable,” she told Washingtonian. “I cannot have my children playing in the front yard when they are digging up one bomb after another across the street.”

In November, after the Army denied her request that the federal government resettle her family during the excavation, Dietrich rented an apartment elsewhere in the neighborhood, where her toddler spends the day and her older child goes after school.

Meanwhile the Corps resumed digging this morning. The Army has spent $230 million already in what has become one of the country’s costliest military-debris removal projects, and says it expects to spend at least another a quarter of a billion to finish the cleanup.

In 1917, the Army summoned chemists to the American University Experimental Station to devise lethal chemical mixtures that might be used as weapons in the war in Europe. Test missiles full of these poisons were launched on Spring Valley’s farms and fields at the time. When the Army closed down the labs and testing sites after the armistice, soldiers buried the chemical-laden ordnance in unmarked pits.

This week’s munition discovery is the latest episode in a saga that began in 1993, when construction workers in a new Spring Valley development hit a cache of mortar rounds. Ever since, with a few fits and starts, the Corps has been trying to clean up what is now one of the District’s most elite neighborhoods. Spring Valley, which hugs the city’s far northwest boundary with Maryland, is home to many lawyers, diplomats, and high-ranking federal officials. Three former presidents lived in grand homes along Spring Valley’s winding streets.

In its ongoing search for toxic agents, primarily arsenic used to make chemical weapons, the Corps has dug up more than 1,600 properties and removed tons of contaminated soil, glassware, lab equipment, bottles of chemicals, and more than a thousand munitions. Groundwater monitoring wells dot the neighborhood. Health studies have not found high rates of cancer, but some former residents are convinced they have been sickened by chemicals in the ground and water.

Using maps and aerial photos, the Army zeroed in on 4825 Glenbrook Road as the probable site of a burial pit nicknamed “the hole called Hades,” pictured in a 1918 photograph. The pit could contain a cache of munitions and glassware from the site’s former labs. The property borders American University off Rockwood Parkway. The Army leased the home site, tore down the house, erected a protective tent, and started to excavate. A sophisticated alarm system is supposed to warn neighbors of toxic emissions.

Christine Dietrich is not satisfied. “We have to protect our children,” she says.

Andrea Takesh, a public affairs specialist with the Corps’ Baltimore District, says her office is in regular contact with Dietrich and alerts her when workers are not digging across her street. “Our communication with her is pretty close,” she says.

The excavation and restoration could last into the spring of 2015, or longer, according to Takesh.