Toxic Clean-Up: Spring Valley (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Toxic Clean-up: Spring Valley

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:25:44
If you've ever been to the Spring Valley neighborhood in Northwest D.C., you know it's a hop, skip and jump from American University. It's home to television personalities and ambassadors. But almost 100 years ago, Spring Valley was, how shall we say, a little bit different. Okay, more like a lot a bit different. The Army was running a World War I era chemical warfare research station in the area.

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

13:26:10
So for decades, chemicals and other weapons lay buried under homes and yards until they were discovered in the 1990s. And as environmental reporter Sabri Ben-Achour tells us, that discovery launched a massive and tricky clean-up effort, one that continues to this day.

MR. SABRI BEN-ACHOUR

13:26:28
In a trailer behind Sibley Hospital, there's an array of glass lab wear on display, mortars, pestles, laboratory bottles.

MR. DAN NOBLE

13:26:35
This is a little bit of show and tell that we have here of items that we found.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:26:39
Dan Noble is with the U.S. Army Corp of engineers, which has been digging around in Spring Valley in Northwest D.C. for years. Next to the glassware is something that looks a lot like a bomb.

NOBLE

13:26:51
That's a 4.7 inch projectile. I think it weighs about 50 pounds or so. This is a munitions debris item. This was recovered at 4825 Glenbrook road, from Pit three. And we found a lewisite munitions, a mustard munitions and we found three RC munitions.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:27:06
And then there's the arsenic contaminated dirt, plus hundreds of other projectiles, as they're known, things like this have been turning up since 1993 when a construction crew was practically gassed when they were digging trenches for a new house. But how does one go about cleaning up a mess like this? Well, it starts on paper with historian Mark Baker.

MR. MARK BAKER

13:27:25
As we found the map that showed where all the buildings were...

BEN-ACHOUR

13:27:28
Doesn't always work, but Baker and others try and figure out where other dumped and forgotten munitions might be.

BAKER

13:27:34
We digitized that and we overlaid those buildings on the modern map and we got a map that shows where -- whatever things were in relation to where we're standing now.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:27:42
When they have a site where they know there's something nasty, they have to contain it. So here on Glenbrook road, they encased an entire house in a shed-like structure.

BAKER

13:27:51
If you step over here, you see the silver metal object, looks like it's laying down on its side down there. That's our chemical agent filtration system. You can see the black duct work that's coming up from the side of the house.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:28:05
When crews are working, the core keeps the whole thing under negative pressure so air is constantly flowing in and only comes out through a filter. Technicians inside are suited up and have their own air supply while they dig, carefully.

BAKER

13:28:18
We do get down in there with things like paint brushes and stuff like that so it does get down to that very fine sort of detailed archeological digging at times.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:28:25
Part of the problem, not just at this site, but at many other sites in Spring Valley, has been contaminated soil itself. The Army Corp has had to remove more than 45,000 tons of it. Todd Beckwith (sp?) is the project manager.

MR. TODD BECKWITH

13:28:38
Whenever we collect soil, we do samples to determine, you know, what are its characteristics? Is it hazardous? Is it just solid waste? For something like a solid waste, something that is a non-hazardous, a likely alternative is to send it off to a landfill. If you have more hazardous soil, it could go off to an incinerator or some type of treatment facility.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:28:58
Arsenic contaminated soil can be incinerated by either to simply melt the dirt and encase the arsenic in a kind of glass or to extract the arsenic from what's burned off. And then there are the weapons.

BECKWITH

13:29:09
You put it in a thick steel chamber designed to withstand detonations and you essentially just blow it up.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:29:17
Unless, of course, those weapons have 100-year-old chemical warfare agents inside of them, in which case you have to try something slightly more delicate. You just blow them up in a different way.

BECKWITH

13:29:26
The munitions is placed inside of the containment vessel, they apply these explosive cutting charges on the munitions. They close up and then they remotely detonate the explosive cutting charge, which opens up the munitions. They add a neutralizing agent, which essentially destroys the chemical agent.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:29:47
Knowing when you're done is part of cleaning up, of course. And the Corp has been wrong about that before, starting to wrap up only to find more to clean up. Last summer, it put one site on hold after finding a flask with arsenic trichloride in it. But people on the project maintain a constant sense of mission, says historian Mark Baker.

BAKER

13:30:03
It's good to get rid of the hazards in the community and make it a safer place for people to live.

BEN-ACHOUR

13:30:08
The Corp still has more to clean up. There are patches of ground water contaminated with perchlorate. They don't expect it to contaminate drinking water, but they're still figuring out what to do about it. If all goes well, Todd Beckwith thinks they might be done in five years. That'll be more than two decades since they got their start. I'm Sabri Ben-Achour.

SHEIR

13:30:25
For links on the history of Spring Valley, check out our website, metroconnection.org.
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