Former Chemical Weapons Test Site in DC

This afternoon, the Green Piece Blog attended a round table discussion hosted by Global Green USA and the DC Environmental Network. The topic of the discussion was a neighborhood in Washington, DC, called Spring Valley. 

The speakers at the discussion included officials from the Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency and the DC Department of the Environment. The story about Spring Valley they presented was fascinating.

Spring Valley was once home to a U.S. military chemical weapons testing site. During WWI, Germany successfully utilized chemical weapons to inflict great harm on their opposition. Around the time the U.S. entered the war, American University donated the land now known as Spring Valley to the military so they could create their own chemical weapons program in response to Germany's. 

The timeline for the development of the testing site begins with the year 1917 when the Bureau of Mines was assigned the task of developing chemical weapons similar to those used by the Germans. The Bureau of Mines had previously been developing gas masks that would protect soldiers from chemical exposure and the U.S. government felt they were best equipped to begin development of next generation chemical weapons. By 1918, a branch of the military was created specifically for chemical weapons development, called the Chemical Warfare Service. 

The Chemical Warfare Service used the Spring Valley site to test some of the world's most toxic chemicals as weapons. Two large, circular trenches were dug out to test mortars filled with chemical mixtures that were shot from cannons hundreds of feet away. Various species of animals and some humans were placed in or around these trenches and the impact of the chemical weapons were tested on them. Some of the military records indicate a wide range of effects from the weapons, including gaseous clouds that spread for great distances.

At some point in time, long after the conclusion of WWI, the U.S. Military began turning over their unused properties to agencies, state and local governments, and private businesses. These sites were called "Formerly Used Defense Sites" or FUDS. Spring Valley is one of these FUDS. Of the 9,000 FUDS turned over for civilian use, 2,500 contained possibly hazardous chemical waste. Specifically, 250 FUDS were once used for chemical weapons development, just like Spring Valley.

During the years after Spring Valley was turned over for civilian use, the area saw a great deal of development on the 660-acre site, including construction of 1600 residential and commercial properties, as well as the expansion of the American University campus. Throughout all of this development, nobody uncovered evidence of the chemical weapons testing until 1993 when a contractor working on a private residence dug up stacks of mortars (see picture above). 

The Army Corps of Engineers was assigned the task of investigating the chemical weapons site and clearing out any dangerous remnants of the military's tests. In 1995, the Corps felt they had completed the investigation and left, only to be contacted by the DC government with complaints about unfinished business. The Corps returned to Spring Valley in 1997 and have been working on the site ever since, with a planned completion of their work by 2011. 

According to the Corps, 96% of the properties in Spring Valley have been tested for unhealthy levels of various chemicals. Those tests have resulted in the remediation of 144 sites because of unacceptable levels of arsenic in the soil.

The Corps have used two important tools in seeking out possible exposure areas. First, they have used mapping technology to overlay maps from 1918 over maps from today to figure out what modern areas are former dump sites. Second, they have hired historians to uncover photographs and stories that might provide insight into how the military divided up Spring Valley for their experiments. 

One of the greatest discoveries by the historians is a photograph of deceased Sergeant Maurer who once worked on the Spring Valley site. In the photo, Sgt. Maurer is filling canisters with mustard gas and piling the canisters in a trench. On the back of the photo, Sgt. Maurer wrote the name of the site area, "Death Valley," and a description of what he was doing. Sgt. Maurer's grandson turned the photo over to the Corps after remembering stories his grandfather would tell when he drank about dumping mustard gas in holes by American University. The Corps used this photo, and others like it, to identify geographic landmarks which led them to the larger dump sites. 

Many of the exposed areas in Spring Valley are the yards of large, beautiful residential homes. On many of these properties, the Corps must rip up the grass and dredge  the soil to scrub and test it. In some cases, giant aluminum shelters are built to isolate the area and protect against the spread of toxic chemicals. Once the Corps is finished with its work, the homeowners receive a newly landscaped yard with freshly planted sod.

DC is home to a few toxic military properties. The Navy Yard area, for instance, is currently a "Superfund" site. Its safe to say that none of these other sites match the history and intrigue of Spring Valley.

If you'd like to read more about Spring Valley on the Army Corps of Engineers' website, click HERE

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