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Norton Tries to Reassure Residents Over Chemical Weapons Cleanup

By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton toured World War I munitions burial sites in Northwest Washington on Wednesday and sought to reassure the public that the Army Corps of Engineers would continue its search for such materials for as long as it takes.

Norton (D-D.C.) was given a status report by the corps, which has been directing the $170 million, 16-year cleanup of the munitions that are buried in scattered sites in the District's Spring Valley neighborhood.

This month, workers were surprised when they found a flask containing residue of the blistering agent mustard buried in the yard of a vacant house in the 4800 block of Glenbrook Road NW. Officials said they had thought cleanup at that site was almost finished.

Work there has been halted but will resume soon, Norton said as she stood across the street Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, corps officials said they plan to search with metal detectors in the Dalecarlia woods, along Dalecarlia Parkway, in an area that was once a mortar firing range.

Norton said she has asked the corps to reveal "all of the substances" that have been found in the area, something the corps has not publicly done.

American University, in what was then a remote part of Washington, served as an experimental site for chemical warfare during World War I.

"That was then," Norton said. "Our concern now is not to rewrite history but to keep the corps digging until all concerned, including the Congress of the United States, is satisfied that it's all done."

"Our position is that the corps must remain until there is an objective all-clear here," she added. "Nobody need move out of this beautiful neighborhood. It really isn't fair to alarm people. . . . There is no indication that the neighborhood is unsafe."

There are 1,632 suspect properties in the area, she said. Ninety-eight percent of them have been sampled. About 140 have required cleanup of some kind.

Norton said she has been told that the air in the area is safe, and so is the water.

Some residents remain critical of the corps' work. "Give me a backhoe and ground-penetrating radar, and I guarantee I'll find stuff that they missed," said Kent Slowinski, who said he grew up in the neighborhood.

Others said they are satisfied. "I think that the Army corps has done a fairly comprehensive, conscientious job," said Jeff Stern, who has lived around the corner for 20 years. "I'm pretty comfortable that they're going to clean it up, and we're all going to move on."

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