Cleanup complete at WWI chemical weapons dump in D.C.'s Spring Valley
By Jacob Fenston
via the National Public Radio web site
At the beginning of World War I, the couple dozen students attending American University suddenly found themselves shunted off campus, their classes held at professors' houses, while more than 1,000 chemists and engineers flocked to what was then rural acreage in a sparsely developed corner of the District. Their mission: to develop and test deadly chemical weapons, including mustard gas.
Now, the most contaminated site from that era has been cleaned up, after two decades of work by the Army Corps of Engineers. The site, at 4825 Glenbrook Rd., NW, was one of the locations where chemicals and debris were dumped when the labs were dismantled after the war.
Amidst multi-million-dollar mansions on a leafy street in Spring Valley, the Army Corps set up a massive barn-like structure, 80 ft. long by 60 ft. wide, to prevent chemical agents from escaping while crews wearing full hazmat suits and oxygen tanks excavated the site by hand. At this one property, workers unearthed 556 "munition items," 23 of which were filled with chemical agent, as well as 53 sealed glass containers of chemical agent. They also found and disposed of 2,139 pounds of laboratory debris and 7,500 tons of contaminated soil.
Six different chemical agents used only in warfare were unearthed at the Glenbrook Rd. property, including white phosphorous, arsenic trichloride, and magnesium arsenide. Arsine, a deadly gas, was found weaponized in 75 mm projectiles.
The location of the Glenbrook disposal pit was found with help from an old photo, found in a collection owned by Sgt. C.W. Maurer. On the back of the 1918 photograph, Maurer wrote:
"The Pit, the most feared and respected place in the grounds. The bottles are full of mustard to be destroyed here. In Death Valley. The hole called Hades."
Army Corps spokesperson Cynthia Mitchell says it wasn't unusual, in the early 1900s, to dispose of hazardous materials this way — dumped in disposal pits in remote areas.
"At that time, this was standard practice," says Mitchell.
But in the years since WWI, the area became a posh neighborhood of sprawling homes set amid expansive lawns, many now valued at more than $5 million. This has complicated remediation efforts.
Read the entire article on the National Public Radio web site here:
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