By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 15, 2008
A 33-acre federal park in Northwest Washington was abruptly shut yesterday and will remain closed indefinitely after soil analysis found arsenic levels far above what the federal government considers safe, officials said.
Fort Reno Park, near Woodrow Wilson High School in the Tenleytown neighborhood, was closed at 6 a.m. Terry Slonecker, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, said he informed the D.C. Department of the Environment that soil samples contained arsenic levels up to 25 times higher than federal regulations allow.
"The official guidelines say that anything above 43 parts per million must be removed on a time-critical basis," Slonecker said. "We had several samples up there in the hundreds: 400, 500. The high end was 1,100 parts per million."
After receiving the report late Tuesday, D.C. officials informed the National Park Service, which runs the site. In a statement, the Park Service said it "moved immediately to close Fort Reno Park to the public with snow fencing set up around the perimeter."
The cause of the high levels of arsenic and the health implications for people who use the park were unclear yesterday, officials said.
"Obviously it's a concern, because it's a contamination that is required to be removed under federal guidelines," Slonecker said.
"But the actual exposure issue is much more complicated," he said. "You're not automatically exposed to it. You'd have to get down and eat a handful of dirt. But that's not to say there aren't issues involving dust" inhalation. Exposure to excessive amounts of arsenic can significantly increase the risk of cancer.
The Environmental Protection Agency will be conducting testing today at Fort Reno as well as on the grounds of Wilson High School, across Chesapeake Street NW from the park, said Carrie Brooks, a spokeswoman for Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D). City officials said the testing would take up to 10 days.
Officials from the fire department, the department of the environment and the city's emergency management agency will operate a command post set up in the area today, Brooks said.
An environmental scientist with the D.C. government, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to comment publicly, said the high arsenic levels at the park might date to the Civil War era, when the site was a fort. He said that at least 72 soldiers were prepared for burial by morticians at old Fort Reno and that "compounds containing arsenic were used as embalming fluid."
He said herbicides, pesticides and lawn fertilizer used in the park over the years also could have contributed to the contamination.
Officials said the park, a mostly open expanse of grass used for concerts and sports, probably will not reopen soon. The Park Service is working with the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers and the city "to more fully and accurately determine possible public risk, if any, and other courses of action," the Park Service statement said.
Park Service spokesman Bill Line said in an interview that before agency officials were notified about the high arsenic levels, they "had no prior reason to suspect anything other than safe conditions existed in Fort Reno Park."
David Sternberg, an EPA spokesman, called the data on arsenic levels preliminary.
"We're going to be working with the D.C. government to conduct an in-depth and more accurate assessment of the arsenic levels, and when we have those results, we will share them with the community," Sternberg said. "And we'll consult with health experts about the sample results so that those experts can assess the risk to those people who've used the park and make recommendations."
Slonecker has been working with other scientists in a years-long effort to find and remove arsenic in the Spring Valley area of Northwest Washington. The contamination stems from World War I-era weapons research and munitions buried decades ago by the military.
In connection with that project, Slonecker said, he and another scientist took six soil samples last month at Fort Reno Park, about a mile east of Spring Valley.
He said he completed his analysis Tuesday and alerted D.C. environmental officials. He said the contamination is not related to the high arsenic levels in Spring Valley.
Staff writer Elissa Silverman contributed to this report.