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Posted at 09:30 AM ET, 05/22/2008

Fort Reno: It's Not Over Yet

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has declared Fort Reno Park safe after conducting its own tests for arsenic levels. It released its findings yesterday for the small federal park in Northwest that was closed last week after a scientist at the U.S. Geological Survey produced soil samples with dangerously high arsenic levels.

But the EPA, the National Park Service and the District of Columbia government aren't sounding the all-clear bell just yet. There's a discrepancy in the results so the 33-acre site, near Woodrow Wilson High School in the Tenleytown neighborhood, is remaining closed indefinitely.

The EPA results conflict with those that closed the park last week. Those tests were conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in April. And yesterday, the USGS was having more tests done at a lab in Denver.

But D.C. Wire is an excellent reader between the lines, however polite those lines may be, and USGS spokesperson A.B. Wade is very polite.

Everyone is working together to get to the bottom of things, Wade told the D.C. Wire.

She noted, however, that "there is scientific data that needs to be explained. And there is some difference in that data and therefore different conclusions could be drawn based on the interpretation of the data."

"USGS learned about the possible contamination and felt like we had the obligation to report and notify the proper authorities," she said, adding the organization remained "concerned enough to send it onward for additional analysis."

It also turns out that Terry Slonecker, the USGS scientist who sounded the alarm about the arsenic levels, was working on his dissertation when he got the aerial shot that initiated concern about Fort Reno.

Wade said Slonecker, who had worked with the EPA for several years on the Spring Valley site (where World War 1 hazardous waste had been dumped) before coming to USGS, was studying the stress arsenic can cause on vegetation for his doctorate. He earned his degree from George Mason University. What he noticed, Wade said, was that the grass in Fort Reno looked similar to the grass in Spring Valley.

"He then felt like there was enough concern that he wanted to learn more about what was happening at Fort Reno," Wade said. "So he got the Fort Reno samples with the help of government officials..."

There has been some behind-the-scenes questioning about the way the Fort Reno case unfolded and whether the National Park Service moved too fast based on limited evidence.

What remains, though, are the high levels of arsenic that the USGS found, so it shipped off its dirt to Denver, Wade said. And there is a possibility more tests may be done, though Wade added that that has yet to be determined.

What's going on now is an effort to "ground truth it," she said, which means continued study to see what the data show.

By Marcia Davis  |  09:30 AM ET, 05/22/2008

Categories:  City Life

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