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Chemical weapons cleanup blast set to go in D.C.

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' plan to detonate some World War I-era chemical weapons in the Spring Valley neighborhood remained Wednesday in place as the city dashed to have a public-safety plan ready to go.

The detonation remains scheduled for Thursday, as has been the case for weeks. However, residents pushed their better-safe-than-sorry approach to lawmakers, and city officials agreed to come up with a safety plan though it was still being devised late Wednesday afternoon.

The corps plans to denote 24 chemical munitions found on federal property in Spring Valley — home to the embassies of Qatar and South Korea, Sibley Memorial Hospital, the Dalecarlia Water Treatment Plant and pumping station, Wesley Theological Seminary and American University.

The Army conducted research and chemical-weapons testing there during the war. Unexploded military ordnance were found during new construction in the area in 1993, and remediation and cleanup have been ongoing since then.

The disposal process, which the corps calls the Explosive Destruction System, calls for enclosing the weapons in a sealed steel chamber that allows for safe detonation. The Army has used the process accident-free on more than 1,700 occasions, including in 2003 to destroy chemical rounds in Spring Valley. However, destroying arsine, which contains blistering agents, in a residential area would be a first — and that's what sparked D.C. residents' concerns.

The Army has never destroyed explosive-configured arsine shells in or adjacent to a residential community, a reservoir or a hospital, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Tom Smith, who lives in the area, told The Washington Times.

Todd Beckwith, the corps' project manager for munitions destruction, nevertheless tried to assure D.C. Council members Mary M. Cheh and Phil Mendelson at a March 29 hearing that the corps' No. 1 priorities are "to protect human health and the environment" during detonations.

But he said the corps had no safety plans or measures for the general area.

"We were not planning on taking additional safety measures beyond federal property," Mr. Beckwith said.

Mr. Beckwith's testimony followed that of Mr. Smith and two other commissioners, who urged lawmakers to devise a backup safety plan that would notify residents of the corps' plan and alert them if something went awry.

Notices would come via e-mail, text and televised messages. Contingency plans, such as whether people should shelter in place, would be included. Residents also said use of an emergency siren should be considered.

The D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency began devising the plan after consulting with the D.C. Department of the Environment, one of the lead agencies, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that partners with the corps to clean up the former munitions site.

Residents are as concerned about potential airborne problems as they are water contamination at Dalecarlia reservoir, which is the primary drinking-water source in the nation's capital.

"As most residents have said to me," Mr. Smith said, "this is a foolhardy idea — these weapons should either be sent outside the community and stored at a military weapons facility that is built just for this purpose or destroyed at such a facility. There is no reason why D.C. residents should face even the slightest — even if improbable — risk from such an event. … Only in Washington would something so clear get so muddled."

About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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