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Metal Detector Joins Hunt for WWI Munitions in D.C.

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scours the Spring Valley area in search of WWI munitions and fragments.

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The biggest mortars were fired from the concrete gun emplacement that still sits in the underbrush beside the driveway of Robert Herzstein's elegant home near American University in Northwest Washington.

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Smaller rounds would fly over what is now Woodway Lane and go as far as Sedgwick Street. The four-inch mortars could reach as far as the future Tilden Street. And the fat eight-inch Livens shells, whose firing tubes were steadied in the concrete, could loft across what would become Dalecarlia Parkway into the woods beyond.

That flight path is what brought geophysicists Ryan Coolbaugh and Lynelle Brode and their weird red metal detector there one day last week in the ongoing quest for buried World War I munitions.

Coolbaugh and Brode are part of the latest chapter in the 16-year, $170 million search for lost chemical weapons in the city's well-to-do Spring Valley neighborhood.

Last August, workers found a flask containing residue of the blistering agent mustard buried in the yard of a vacant house a few blocks from where Herzstein, a former undersecretary of commerce, has lived for 20 years.

Experts said the vial posed no danger to the public but suspended work on the site, on Glenbrook Road, adjacent to AU.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been scouring the community and removing munitions and fragments on and off since the 1990s. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) has scheduled a town hall meeting on the cleanup for 6 p.m. Tuesday in Room 5 of AU's Mary Graydon Center.

Now geophysicists hired by the corps are in Dalecarlia Woods studying the far end of a firing range "fan" that runs 1,550 yards northwest from Herzstein's driveway.

There, in the closing months of World War I, the Army fenced in a site where it tested an array of mortars designed to fire chemical weapons, officials said.

An old photo shows soldiers tending Stokes mortars, standing near piles of ammunition, and four Livens "projectors" set in a concrete emplacement. The Livens projector, akin to a large mortar, was designed to fling poisonous gas at enemy trenches.

Another old photo, possibly taken from the same site, shows the white cloud of an explosion in the distance.

The site was one part of a vast chemical weapons project set up at what was called the American University Experiment Station. In 1917 and 1918, an army of scientists experimented there with poisonous gases, bacteria and other toxic materials for use in bombs, shells and grenades. There was even a "Flaming Liquid" unit that studied the possibility of flaming bayonets.


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