Tuesday, September 9, 2003

Residents of the upscale Spring Valley neighborhood in Northwest last night questioned officials from the Army Corps of Engineers on their discovery of a dangerous World War I-era toxic chemical in the ground near their homes.

The Corps had announced yesterday that laboratory tests confirmed that 6 milliliters, or about one tablespoon, of a solution containing 0.3 percent of the dangerous liquid Lewisite was found in a sealed glass container during the excavation of a debris field. The field is in the southwestern portion of the American University campus along Rockwood Parkway.

Military personnel used portions of the Spring Valley neighborhood from 1917 to 1919 to conduct research and testing on chemical warfare material as part of their work at the former American University Experiment Station.

Last night’s meeting near Sibley Memorial Hospital drew about 30 residents and about 10 members of the Spring Valley Restoration Advisory Board.

Today, the area contains more than 1,500 homes and commercial stores. Numerous residents of the area have complained of health problems that they believe stem from the burial of chemical agents.

Gary Schilling, the manager of the cleanup project, said at last night’s meeting that the bottle containing the Lewisite and two others containing a solid substance were discovered in March and April. He said a breakdown in procedures caused the bottles to be misclassified and stored until Aug. 25, when they were finally tested.

“The procedure was we should have stopped work and sent the items off,” Mr. Schilling said. “That’s the procedure that wasn’t followed.”

Some board members seemed less upset about the discovery of the buried bottle of Lewisite in an open field than the fact that it took more than four months for officials to determine what it was.

Geza Teleki, 59, a 30-year Spring Valley resident who has served on the restoration advisory board for more than 10 years, said the Corps has consistently tried to “diminish” problems it has encountered during the site cleanup and accused workers of “screwing up.”

“We’ve been here 10 years listening to this claptrap with all sorts of excuses being made for these mistakes,” he said. “This is a potentially lethal situation.”

Lewisite, a blister agent made from an arsenic compound, is an oily, colorless liquid that smells like geraniums in its pure form. It is faster acting than mustard gas, can penetrate clothing and rubber and can be lethal in quantities as small as .005 parts per million.

It was made in the spring of 1918 by a team of Catholic University chemists led by W.L. Lewis.

According to a fact sheet posted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Web site, at www.bt.cdc.gov, Lewisite was produced in 1918 to be used in World War I, but it was developed too late for use in the war.

“It has no medical or other practical use,” the fact sheet states.

The Corps of Engineers said that if the material been released, under worst-case conditions there would be no effect on anyone beyond a distance of 1 meter. Officials said the liquid was contained within a sealed glass container and no health or safety incidents were reported by workers during their work at this site.

In a Sept. 4 letter to Army Corps of Engineers Col. Robert J. Davis, the D.C. Department of Health’s senior deputy director for environmental health at the D.C. Department of Health, said he was “perplexed and distressed” about news of the discovery.

“This canister, along with two others, was found at an area called Lot 18 in April of this year but was not analyzed until August,” states Theodore J. Gordon. “I am concerned that there was an apparent failure of the Corps’ internal protocols for discoveries of this kind, but I am more concerned that the District was not kept fully informed of this discovery.”

It was first revealed that Spring Valley had been used as a dump site for World War I weapons in 1993, after construction workers uncovered chemical munitions in the neighborhood. Since then, about $85 million has been spent on cleanup and testing of the site.

Richard Albright, an environmental specialist at the D.C. Department of Health, said during a July D.C. Council hearing on the progress of the cleanup that 655 shells and 220 bottles of chemicals had been removed from a 600-acre span of the neighborhood. He said some of the bottles contained mustard gas.

Officials also said that between November 2002 and May 2003, several scrap of ordnance items and some broken and intact glassware were recovered.

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