Metro mystery: Where did all the dirt go?

John Kelly
Columnist June 18, 2011

Iworked for the engineering consultant that designed the Washington Metro system and cannot answer the following question from a colleague who recently moved here: Where did the contractors unload all the material obtained from their tunneling and cut-and-cover ­operations?

Donald Patrick,

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Washington

In 1973, The Post estimated that the dirt excavated to create the Metro system — close to 20 million cubic yards of material — would be able to fill the Washington Monument 450 times over.

What to do with it all?

It would have been impractical, not to mention unsightly, to erect 450 dirt obelisks on the Mall. And it would have been just as impractical to dispose of it the way the Allied prisoners of war did in that movie “The Great Escape”: by scattering it from their pants legs in the exercise yard of the Nazi stalag. So Metro did what is done in most construction projects: got lots of trucks to carry lots of dirt and drop it in lots of places.

Those places were landfills, primarily in Fairfax and Prince George’s counties. Fleets of dump trucks carried debris spat out by tunneling machines and uncovered by the cut-and-cover operations, whereby deep trenches were dug down the center of streets to place the tracks.

“The name of the game is finding dumps near the building site so you can cut down on costs and save money,” A.L. Hodge told The Post in 1973. Hodge was president of Minority Truckers, one of nearly 30 firms contracted to haul Metro dirt.

Some of the dirt they could sell: Clean fill dirt is always in demand. So is gravel. “Good gravel is worth money,” Larry Heflin, design manager for the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority, told The Post in 1991. “And if we can’t use it elsewhere on the job, contractors often end up selling it.”

Some material was repurposed. Much of the stuff that was dug up when the Anacostia tunnel was created went to form a riverside recreation area. A noise-abatement hill on the Green Line was made from dirt excavated from around the College Park Metro station. Sometimes what was born wasn’t a hill but a lake. The 38-acre Lake Artemesia in Berwyn Heights — originally known as “Lake Metro” — was created when sand and gravel was removed to be used as rail beds at College Park and Greenbelt.

Answer Man recently spoke to Larry, Metro’s onetime “Mr. Tunnel,” who lives in Cabin John. “The general answer is it was up to the contractor to dispose of his own excavated material. . . . The joke always was that since we went through a lot of hard rock, where on occasion gold was found, we would be paying the contractors to take away the gold.”

For the record, Larry doesn’t think much gold was excavated.

Larry has had his engineer’s hand in all sorts of iconic Washington area projects. He came to the area to work on Dulles International Airport. Then he supervised construction of the Potomac Interceptor, the sewage tunnel that leads from Dulles to the District’s Blue Plains Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant. And he worked on the Metro system.

If the Silver Line ever gets to Dulles, his projects will be linked.

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