The woods, which border Rock Creek Park and are part of the Forest Glen annex of the old Walter Reed Army Medical Center, were used during and after World War II as a landfill for medical waste.
Discarded scalpels and syringes have been unearthed near the running trail by Army contractors, who have also found more than 30 chemicals above EPA safety levels in the soil, groundwater and stream, making its orange-tinted water potentially hazardous to pets and people.
Despite the contamination, some nearby residents don’t want the Army to fence off the area during any cleanup, saying they can live with whatever threat the buried waste poses.
“We live in paradise. It’s not just a dump,” said Barbara Schubert, 69, who has lived at the edge of these woods for 11 years and doubts that the contamination poses a serious danger. “We will really get involved if they decide to close off the trail,” she said.
But the Army, required by federal law to identify, investigate and remediate hazardous sites on its property, isn’t comfortable with the risks.
“People have been walking over the medical waste for years,” said Joseph Gortva, who manages hazardous-waste cleanup and land restoration for the U.S. Army Garrison-Forest Glen at Fort Detrick in Frederick, which took possession of the 127-acre tract in 2008. “That really got us concerned.”
A 30-day public-comment period is expected to start in late July or early August, and a few weeks later, the Army will announce how it will limit public exposure to the hazardous waste. Gortva and other Army officials are expecting a fight if they decide to fence off the landfill or cap it.
Army contractors are now measuring the potential health risk of exposure to high levels of arsenic, radium and other chemicals buried in the woods as well as other contamination at six more sites throughout the Forest Glen annex, which the Army acquired during World War II to expand Walter Reed.
One dioxin in the stream, a probable carcinogen called 2,3,7,8-TCDD, was measured at a level nine times higher than the EPA’s freshwater screening benchmark. That prompted a Forest Glen manager to put up signs warning those who use the park not to allow their pets to drink from the stream.
The annex is currently home to the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and a handful of other biomedical research centers.
The Maryland Department of the Environment will evaluate the health risks and decide which sites the Army needs to clean up and how. State and Army officials suspect that the woods near what’s known as the Ireland Drive trail will require extensive cleanup. Officially called “Site 2” among the other six contaminated areas of the annex, the old medical landfill is buried under two baseball fields within the annex security fence and the woods beyond the fence that border Rock Creek Park.
Schubert and many of her neighbors who want to keep the wooded area open have succeeded in the past, creating a group called Save Our Trail in 2004 when the Army temporarily closed its entrance near Linden Lane during nearby construction.
Schubert’s husband, Steven Rosen, has joined the Forest Glen Restoration Advisory Board, which was formed in 2012 with members of the community, the Army and the state environment department. Rosen, 70, said he often finds glass and pottery from the old hospital in the woods behind their house.
“Yes, there is waste that washes up, but we’re okay with that,” he said.
Gortva is less forgiving.
“The other day, there was an amber chemical jar here. Someone picked it up and took it,” he explained during a recent walk down the Ireland Drive trail.“People are still coming in and picking up the waste.”
The Army has since posted signs warning people to keep away from the polluted stream, which feeds into Rock Creek.
The dioxin that was found in the stream at more than nine times the EPA limit is a byproduct of the burning of fuel and industrial waste. It causes an acne-like skin condition in people and likely causes cancer, according to the EPA. Benzo[a]pyrene, a chemical created when organic waste is burned, surpassed EPA levels in 10 water samples along the stream. The highest level was nearly five times above the federal benchmark. Based on scientific research on animals, benzo[a]pyrene likely causes cancer, according to the agency.
Chemicals leaching from the landfill are probably the source of contamination, Gortva said, even though many of them are natural and sometimes found at high levels in the environment.
According to Maryland’s Environment Department, although chemical levels exceed EPA standards, they pose no immediate threat to people. But the Army needs to find a way to keep people from walking on the landfill, said Jim Carroll, program manager for the department’s land-restoration program.
“People are not drinking the groundwater. The greater concern would be if people come in contact with the soil,” Carroll said.
The Army could post more signs warning people not to dig in the soil or touch the water, Gortva said, but that doesn’t work well. And if someone gets hurt, the Army could face legal problems, he added.
“Putting up signs, honestly, attracts some people,” he said. “What if a child starts flipping over rocks and cuts himself with something?”
The Army is also assessing contamination on 50 acres next to the annex that once belonged to the hospital. Part of the land was used to expand Rock Creek Park, and another part was sold to developers.
Don Hall, a retired Army colonel who co-chairs the Restoration Advisory Board and lives across the street from the entrance to the Ireland Drive trail, said he’s torn over what the Army should do.
“I would like to see them keep the trees, but I don’t like the idea of wandering through medical waste, either,” said Hall, who bikes or walks in the woods about once a week. “They’re still crunching the numbers. Let’s see what the numbers say.”