The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is awaiting approval from a safety board to restart digging for buried chemical munitions near American University in Northwest after the recent discovery of a shell that was configured to explode.
Digging at the latest excavation of World War I munitions was halted Dec. 5 after workers uncovered the 75 mm round. The excavation had begun Oct. 29.
“The chance of a detonation occurring is very, very minimal,” project manager Dan Noble told residents at a community meeting Tuesday evening as he announced the discovery of the potentially explosive shell, adding that the shell did not have a fuse attached to ignite the explosive inside. “It’s designed to not function unless you put a fuse in.”
Chemical weapons were developed and tested in the area when the university was used as an experimental warfare station in the early 20th century. Unused artillery and lab waste was eventually dumped and buried behind the campus — an area that developed into the affluent Spring Valley neighborhood — when the Army left decades ago.
This is only the second potentially explosive shell found in 15 years of digging for munitions left in the area, Mr. Noble said. Hundreds of others contained chemical agents but were not configured to explode.
Residents said they were worried about how the latest artillery shell would be stored at a holding facility near the neighborhood. Army policy calls for such munitions to be held and destroyed near where they are found, rather than transporting them on major roads or across state lines.
Army Corps officials said their storage facility is safe, and they are working with the Pentagon to expedite the destruction of munitions. Still, they are considering “an additional layer of safety” for the unlikely chance that the shell could explode.
D.C. Council member Mary Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat who represents the area, said she was asking the city for $750,000 to continue a study by researchers from Johns Hopkins University examining health risks from the buried toxins and munitions.
A report in May said the community’s general health is “very good” with no spike in cancer or mortality rates from 1994 to 2004. But it recommended further investigation of earlier years as well as potential connections to blood disorders, neurological problems and kidney disease.
“It seems to me, at some point you need a certain type of clarity” to understand the health effects over time, Mrs. Cheh said. “Maybe what we need is an interim best answer.”