by Steve Vogel, Washington Post
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
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photographs and out-of-date maps.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
"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
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
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
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
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
But further investigation at Fort Foote may be
postponed, Butler added, because the expensive Spring
Valley operation is draining money for other cleanups