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Hazardous Waste and History Mix On D.C. Tour

By Yamiche Alcindor
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 21, 2009

The manicured lawns and beautiful brick homes that line the streets of Spring Valley look like those in most affluent District neighborhoods.

But the area looked much different during World War I, when the Army was using it as a testing ground for chemical weapons.

On Sunday, visitors on a tour of the neighborhood heard how, 90 years after scientists ended their experiments, the remnants of toxic munitions remain.

"The purpose of the tour is to encourage more historical research, investigation and cleanup here," said Kent Slowinski, who led more than a dozen people on the walk. "We want to raise awareness in both Spring Valley and nationwide."

He and Allen Hengst co-founded "Environmental Health Group: Spring Valley," a group that advocates for more research into the locations and health effects of the chemicals.

The one-mile walk was part of more than 120 free WalkingTownDC tours, presented by Cultural Tourism DC, that took place across the District over the weekend.

During World War I, 661 acres of forested land around the American University campus were used for Army tests. The range became known as the American University Experiment Station.

In 1993, a construction crew's discovery of an artillery round triggered an evacuation and cleanup of the area. Experts have since been scouring the neighborhood for buried munitions and chemicals. Workers have found several toxins, such as arsine, a vomiting agent called DA or Clark 1 and liquid mustard, a type of blistering agent.

Slowinski, a landscape architect who grew up in Spring Valley, became interested in 1996 when a stonemason with whom he was working found munitions at a home in Spring Valley. For two hours Sunday, Slowinski, who has given several tours of the area, pointed to various campus buildings and houses where hundreds of chemical munitions might be buried. He began at the university's Ohio McKinley Hall, the birthplace of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service. He pointed to trees, football fields and green patches around the university and neighborhood where he believes munitions still lie.

Slowinski also talked about homeowners whose health problems might be linked to the neighborhood's past.

"It's terrifying," said Chris Cottrell, 22, a senior at American University who took the tour. "There are dangerous munitions buried on campus, and I don't think most students even know about it. This is like the first thing the university should tell students about."

Aaron Lloyd, 38, grew up in Spring Valley. Less than a decade ago, his stepfather found munitions buried in the back yard of the home where Lloyd grew up and where his mother had kept a garden. "It's very disturbing," he said. "Someone had to have known about these chemical weapons before 1993."

Nan Wells, an advisory neighborhood commissioner from Spring Valley, said she hopes that the tour will help engage the public. "We need follow-up studies to know the health effects," she said during the tour. She also hopes that the Army Corps of Engineers, which along with the D.C. Department of the Environment is overseeing the cleanup and destruction of the munitions, will continue to fund the project.

For fiscal 2010, the corps has allotted $11 million to the cleanup effort. The number drops to $3 million in fiscal 2011 and $500,000 the following fiscal year.

Nazzarena Labo, 36, a epidemiologist, said more research needs to be done before health effects from the munitions can be determined. "It's very hard to go from anecdotal evidence to causation," she said. "People shouldn't be scared or anxious. But they should be concerned."

Slowinski ended the tour at 4825 Glenbrook Rd., a vacant house where cleanup workers found a laboratory vial last month that tested positive for the World War I blistering agent mustard. The home's owner had a brain tumor and eventually moved away, Slowinski said.

American University has since bought the house, where cleanup continues.

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