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.
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.
The project was like World War II's Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, said Corps of Engineers historian Mark L. Baker.
"This was probably the largest research and development facility for chemical weapons anywhere in the world during the First World War," he said.
Baker said the corps has had the two photos since the Spring Valley project started with the first major munitions discovery in 1993.
In 1994, a preliminary search of Dalecarlia Woods turned up one projectile and some other fragments, the corps has said. But it was not enough to prompt further investigation.
Then, in 2002, experts said, they found the concrete emplacement on Herzstein's property. That enabled them to pinpoint the likely source of the firing and draw a fan showing the area where rounds might have landed.
The corps sent letters to property owners and began surveying with metal detectors and magnetometers. Herzstein said that his property was examined but that nothing of interest was found, aside from the concrete. "I knew it was there," he said. "I didn't know what it was." Upon learning what it was, "we were amused," he said. "That's all."
"The whole thing doesn't bother me in the slightest," he said. "It's an interesting historical event, but I never have felt threatened by it."
Dan Noble, the corps' Spring Valley project manager, said that if an object is detected in the ground, workers can dig it up to see what it is. The corps said some "munitions debris" has been found in the range fan so far, most of it harmless.
The search was recently extended to Dalecarlia Woods, near the Dalecarlia Reservoir, which supplies water to more than a million people in the region.
No munitions have been found in the reservoir, corps spokesmen said, adding that the Army probably would not have fired weapons at a public water source. In recent years, some contaminants have been found in groundwater in the area, but they are not thought to be threatening the reservoir, officials said.
In the woods, underbrush was cleared and the surface scanned for metal. No military objects were found, Noble said. Now the geophysicists are scanning deeper with the metal detector.
"I expect that there will be hundreds of things that we're going to say, 'Okay, let's dig it up and see what it is,' " Noble said. "I don't think most of them will be anything."
Last week, Coolbaugh and Brode were maneuvering their metal detector along a grid pattern they had established in the woods west of Dalecarlia Parkway.
Noble said the terrain was probably much as it was in 1918 -- rugged, hilly and relatively isolated. So why search there?
"We want to try to tell the full story," he said. "In the public, there's still great concern over the idea of perhaps intact items that might still have chemical in them being left behind. . . . It's an item that we want us, with all of our experts, to encounter versus someone in the future . . . who might not recognize the item for what it is.
"We want to try to avoid those types of encounters," he said.