Arsenic Inquiry Expands to Md., N.Va.
The search for arsenic contamination left by World War I munitions and chemical testing has spread beyond the District's Spring Valley neighborhood and into the suburbs of Maryland and Virginia, where documents show further weapons tests occurred.
Officials stress that none of the current investigations was begun because of reports of health problems and that no evidence of contamination has been found.
But federal inspectors, stung by criticism that they mishandled the Spring Valley investigation after being confronted as early as 1986 with evidence of buried munitions, are moving more quickly to deal with possible threats elsewhere.
Through yellowed documents and dusty recollections, the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have identified sites throughout the region linked to a chemical weapons testing station the Army operated at American University during World War I. They continue searching for others using aerial photographs and out-of-date maps.
This week, the Army notified a school, church and country club, all in Bethesda, that their soil should be tested for possible contamination, because documents indicate limited experimentation in 1918 with a toxic but nonlethal chemical. The EPA has pressed for the investigation as a precaution to make sure that young children at the Harbor School are not playing in arsenic-contaminated soil, officials said.
"In terms of public risk, I don't want to say it's very low, but it's not nearly the level of concern we have at Spring Valley," said Jack Butler, who oversees the Army Corps of Engineers' environmental cleanup operations in Maryland.
In recent weeks, scientists have also surveyed national parkland near the Chain Bridge along the C&O Canal and the grounds of the Dalecarlia Reservoir in the District. Officials will analyze aerial photographs to investigate concerns that the lethal chemical lewisite was buried at Catholic University.
Navy and Maryland environmental officials launched a search last month in the Carderock area of Montgomery County for a site where a dangerous chemical was tested. The EPA is looking for a site in Arlington where more chemical munitions may have been buried. And in Prince George's County, federal officials are awaiting funding to search for buried munitions or contamination at historic Fort Foote.
Federal officials have known about most of the sites for years, but with locations spread across the region -- on federal and private land -- there has been little or no effort to notify local authorities or property owners. In some cases, information was so vague, or the reports of what happened so anecdotal, that federal officials have not known where to start. They have also not wanted to alarm residents, given uncertainty as to whether the hazards are significant.
But the findings in Spring Valley and at AU over the past two years convinced some EPA officials that they needed to take action. Dangerous levels of arsenic were found at the Korean ambassador's residence, a child development center and athletic fields at AU.
The resulting outcry prompted the Army to agree to test every property in Spring Valley. The massive undertaking, which is nearly complete, has found elevated levels of arsenic at about 130 locations, or more than 11 percent of the properties, said Maj. Michael Peloquin, who oversees the project for the Corps of Engineers. Most of those properties will likely have contaminated soil removed by the Corps.
Some of the highest levels of arsenic were found in areas outside of Spring Valley proper, primarily in neighboring Fort Gaines, where Army records show that soldiers lived in tents during World War I.
A city health analysis has not found an abnormal number of deaths from cancer in Spring Valley. But at the recommendation of a science advisory panel appointed last year by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D), more testing is being done to monitor the health of residents, particularly children, living on lots with high arsenic levels.
At a congressional hearing last summer about Spring Valley, committee members asked the General Accounting Office to investigate other sites. That study is underway, officials said.
A simultaneous push by the EPA has begun to yield results. But clear answers may be hard to come by.
The investigation in Bethesda, for instance, was prompted by Army records describing a one-time field test in October 1918 with 88 pounds of diphenylchloroarsine at what federal officials believe is now Bethesda Country Club on Bradley Boulevard. The chemical is a vomiting agent and includes arsenic, a carcinogen, as a breakdown product.
The Harbor School, which has 130 students from preschool through second grade, was notified Wednesday that the EPA wants to conduct soil sampling there.
"Anything of this nature is extremely important to the safety of our children, and we would cooperate in any way," said Carol Montag, head of the school.
The country club and the neighboring Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, which owns the school property, were also notified Wednesday. The Corps of Engineers has known since at least 1994 that the Army tested chemicals at a Montgomery country club since at least 1994, when it was mentioned in a little-noticed public report, but disagreement over which country club was involved has stymied action, Butler said.
The investigation in the Carderock area of Montgomery stems from a 1918 Army report describing another test with diphenylchloroarsine on what was known as Conduit Road. Investigators who have examined an old Army map recently concluded that it shows a site somewhere along an east-west stretch of what is now MacArthur Boulevard, and the investigation is focusing on what is now the Carderock Division of the Naval Surface Warfare Center.
The Chain Bridge and Arlington investigations spring from the vague memories of a Scottish man who said he buried munitions in the 1930s. Using aerial footage, officials identified a possible site near the C&O Canal. He also referred to burying ordnance near two radio towers in Arlington, which inspectors initially thought were near a former Navy radio station on South Courthouse Road but now believe were near Fort Myer.
A lack of funding has stymied investigation at Fort Foote, a Civil War fort reactivated as a training site in World War I. "The Army did quite a bit of chemical testing there," said Bill Line, a spokesman for the National Park Service, which runs the site. Tests for chemical residue last year were "inconclusive," Line said.
Some officials suspect that there may be munitions buried at Fort Foote, though no records have been found to prove it. Said Butler, "Given the track record at Spring Valley, we're not going to rule that out."
But further investigation at Fort Foote may be postponed, Butler added, because the expensive Spring Valley operation is draining money for other cleanups and investigations.