News & Politics

Dig for Chemical Weapons in Spring Valley Extended to 2017

Will the search for weapons of mass destruction ever end in the elite DC neighborhood?

The Army Corps of Engineers announced yesterday that the project to clean up chemical weapons and toxic waste in Spring Valley will take another three years. Since 1993, the Army has been cleaning up World War I bombs and chemical agents buried from experiments at American University in 1918. In 2012, it said the project would finish this year. The new target is 2017.

The Army has estimated the cleanup cost at $250 million, but that number is likely to increase with the extended schedule. The Corps now says the project will cost $256 million, according to Andrea Takash, a spokesperson for the Army Corps’ Baltimore District, which is handling the cleanup.

“This is heading to $300 million,” says Harold G. “Buzz” Bailey, an environmental lawyer who’s followed the Spring Valley project and represented residents dealing with the federal government.

If the Army actually finishes its excavation and restoration by 2017, the cleanup of toxic waste will have taken 24 years since contractors stumbled upon a cache of bombs with traces of chemical agents.

In those 24 years, the Army has cleaned up 177 yards and lots where it discovered high levels of arsenic and other chemicals. It has found more than 1,000 “ordnance items, including rounds filled with chemical agents.” Army contractors have sunk 53 wells to monitor ground water and found high levels of arsenic and perchlorate, according to the Army Corps website, and are planning to drill two more.

The toxic waste comes from chemical labs at American University established during World War I to develop bombs to use in the European trench warfare. During the 1914-1918 war, armies used bombs with poison gas on the battlefield. The US Army asked chemists from around the country to gather at the American University Experimental Station to develop a lethal poison gas.

The chemists came up with Lewisite, a gas made principally of arsenic. It was dubbed the “dew of death,” because one drop could be lethal. Back then, Spring Valley was fields and forest, and soldiers fired poison-gas bombs across the area to see how quickly it killed animals tethered to stakes.

The war ended before the Lewisite could make it to Europe, and the American University Experiment Station closed down. Soldiers buried the bombs and dumped chemicals into pits.

In the following decades, the neighborhood in the District’s far northwest corner bordering on Maryland developed with fine homes and mansions. Spring Valley became the home of presidents and diplomats.

Until it came to light in 1993, Spring Valley’s chemical past was buried in archives.

The Army is currently excavating a burial pit at 4825 Glenbrook Road, Northwest. It borders American University and lies between the home of the university’s president and the residence of the South Korean ambassador. So far, the Army has unearthed toxic glassware from the labs, a number of bombs with no explosives, and tons of contaminated soil. It has put in place an elaborate safety system to protect workers and residents.

Christine Dieterich, who lives with her husband and two young children across the street, pleaded with the federal government to relocate her family during the dig. She failed, and has rented an apartment where her children can spend time while contractors search for chemical weapons across the street.

“The Dieterichs are very frustrated that the project is taking so long,” says Buzz Bailey, who represented the family in dealings with the government, “but they are not surprised given the amount of chemical weapons previously found and expected to be found. This continues to take a huge psychological and financial burden on the family.”

Meanwhile, given that the Corps has extended its schedule at least twice, the chances are high that the dig will take even longer than estimated.

Find Harry Jaffe on Twitter at @harryjaffe