New Arsenic Testing Ends Shutdown at Fort Reno Park

Arsenic levels in earlier tests at the park were deemed a
Arsenic levels in earlier tests at the park were deemed a "false positive." (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
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By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

Officials reopened Fort Reno Park in Northwest Washington yesterday, saying recent extensive tests have found no unsafe levels of arsenic in the soil there.

The 33-acre field, a popular site for sports and concerts in the Tenleytown neighborhood, was abruptly closed to the public May 14 after the U.S. Geological Survey said soil samples showed arsenic levels of as much as 1,100 parts per million -- about 25 times the limit of 43 parts per million set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

But those test results turned out to be "a false positive," officials said yesterday.

"We are happy to say that our initial report in this case was incorrect," said Michael G. Gauldin, a spokesman for the Geological Survey, who joined Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and other officials at a news conference at the park.

"I can't explain in detail today why the first test we had was what we consider a false positive," Gauldin said. "We have retested the original samples, and the EPA has conducted its own tests, and U.S. Geological Survey scientists are confident that the low levels [found in the recent EPA tests] are the true levels here in the park."

Arsenic, which occurs naturally in the environment, can cause a range of health problems if a person is exposed to high levels for a prolonged period.

Across Chesapeake Street from the park, officials also had cordoned off a dirt area near the running track at Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, saying the initial tests indicated high levels of arsenic there. That area also got the all-clear yesterday.

As a half-dozen National Park Service workers mowed the park's tall grass, getting the field ready for a weekend of activity, Fenty stood at a lectern facing television cameras.

"While you never go out of the way to say something is 100 percent safe," the mayor said, "it is the announcement today that the tests that were done reveal that the arsenic levels here at Fort Reno and adjoining and surrounding properties are in the safe level."

The original finding of unsafe arsenic levels was based on six soil samples taken at the park in April. In the past two weeks, officials said, scientists did a new analysis of the April samples and conducted extensive tests on additional samples.

"There has now been sampling done all throughout the park," said George S. Hawkins, director of the D.C. Department of the Environment. "It is all consistent, which is that we do not have a health threat from arsenic or from any of the other metals we tested for -- and we tested for the whole suite. So this a very safe park for everyone, as it should be."

He added, "This is government functioning the way it should -- quickly, effectively, with safety and health as a priority, and until we were certain that the results were safe, we did not reopen the park."

Adrienne Coleman, the Park Service official in charge of Fort Reno, said the scientists who conducted the recent tests found a small patch of soil in the park's northwest corner that is contaminated with an unsafe level of lead. She said the area, about 10 feet by 15 feet, has been cordoned off, pending further tests.

"We will, more than likely, do a remediation there," Coleman said, "which means we will come in and dig up the soil and haul it away."

As for the false-positive test results that touched off the arsenic scare, Gauldin said: "We are conducting an aggressive review of why the initial analysis showed higher than safe levels. And when we find out, I'll be happy to report that to you. It could be a number of factors."

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