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Groundwater Toxin Near Aqueduct

Army Engineers Faulted for Inaction Since 2003 Finding

By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 27, 2004; Page B01

Random tests performed in summer 2003 found unsafe amounts of a chemical toxin a few hundred yards from Washington's drinking water supply, a discovery that has set off a tense, largely behind-the-scenes debate over what steps are necessary to protect the water and the public.

The high concentrations of perchlorate, a toxin typically found in chemical weapons and explosives, were detected by chance in June and September 2003 as part of a long-term study and cleanup of chemical contamination in the surrounding Spring Valley neighborhood. A researcher with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found the chemical in groundwater near the Washington Aqueduct reservoir at levels 80 times the amount EPA considers a risk to humans.

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For the past year, the results were known only to a relatively small group of scientists, government officials and neighborhood activists. Officials at the aqueduct said there is no cause for alarm because significant amounts of perchlorate have not been detected in the drinking water. The aqueduct has conducted tests several times this year that can detect perchlorate at concentrations as low as 4 parts per billion.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible both for operating the aqueduct and for leading the Spring Valley cleanup project, initially argued that aggressive steps to investigate the source of perchlorate or to monitor the flow of groundwater were not needed. Corps officials, at a meeting Oct. 7 with the EPA, proposed a series of tests to monitor groundwater contamination in Spring Valley, far uphill from the reservoir.

Amid more questions from the EPA and from a consultant hired by residents of Spring Valley, Corps officials said last week that they will also monitor groundwater on the banks of the reservoir, near a wooded area suspected of being a chemical weapons burial site from World War I.

"I don't like the fact that I can't answer the question of how groundwater moves around the reservoir," Thomas Jacobus, chief of the aqueduct, said in explaining the agency's new approach. "The question people will ask me is, {grv}'What are you doing to protect the water supply? Why haven't you stuck a stick in the ground?' That's a good point. So we're going to find out."

Ed Hughes, Corps project manager for hazardous and toxic waste at Spring Valley, said in a written statement that the team will reevaluate its plans in fall 2005 if information from its monitoring wells shows that contaminated groundwater is getting into the reservoir.

"We do not believe the [former munitions testing station] poses a serious current threat to the reservoir," he said. "If there was an indication of a problem, our approach would be different."

But experts on perchlorate contamination say immediate action should have been taken to determine the source of the chemical and whether it could seep into the reservoir. They say the latest response is still inadequate because the Corps is not trying to pinpoint the source of the perchlorate and has no plans until 2008 to investigate suspected weapon burials on the wooded aqueduct property.

"It's crucial to find the source in order to properly monitor the problem," said Henry Harrison, a national consultant on contamination cleanup. "It's basic."

The debate here echoes a contentious battle between the U.S. military and communities all over the country, including in Aberdeen, over how much danger perchlorate poses to the public and whether the military should be forced to clean it up.

The discovery of perchlorate near the reservoir, first reported last week in the Northwest Current, shows how this potential hazard is handled differently across the country. There is no federal standard for perchlorate, largely because the Department of Defense has fought it. In the absence of one, a handful of states have set their own public health and cleanup rules, with varying success.

Hughes said the Corps has a limited budget of $11 million for the site cleanup and must prioritize its work according to likely risk. The Corps will focus in the next year on determining whether groundwater is flowing toward the reservoir, which treats and supplies water to the District, Arlington County and the City of Falls Church.

"Only after we have a handle on answers to these two questions will we be concerned with determining the source of perchlorate," Hughes wrote.


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