Correction to This Article
The March 15 obituary of Charlie Bermpohl gave the wrong date for the Woodstock Festival. It was in 1969.
Charlie Bermpohl, 74

Charlie Bermpohl dies; reported on WWI munitions site in Washington

Charlie Bermpohl wrote about toxic chemicals in Spring Valley.
Charlie Bermpohl wrote about toxic chemicals in Spring Valley. (Allen Hengst)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 15, 2010

Charlie Bermpohl, 74, a Washington reporter whose dogged pursuit of the long-running story of buried World War I munitions in the city's affluent Spring Valley neighborhood helped alert residents to the persistence of toxic chemicals beneath their yards, died of complications of throat cancer Feb. 28 at Georgetown University Hospital.

Mr. Bermpohl, a reporter for the Current weekly newspapers, didn't break the story; that happened in January 1993, when a construction crew digging a trench at the home of the American University president found a 75-year-old artillery round.

During the resulting uproar, residents learned that federal analysts had warned the Army in 1986 of potential chemical weapons burial sites on the AU campus. The Army had withheld news about the analysis from city officials and Spring Valley residents, in violation of federal laws and military regulations.

The Army Corps of Engineers eventually found the presence of multiple chemicals, including arsenic and products from the breakdown of mustard gas containers. A Johns Hopkins University study commissioned by the city said in 2007 that cancer and mortality rates in the immediate area were significantly below national rates. But munitions still keep turning up from what had been an Army test site in 1917 and 1918, some as recently as August.

Mr. Bermpohl burrowed deeply into the issue, examining countless documents, attending scores of neighborhood meetings and developing sources in official and unofficial positions. He found a list of 215 chemicals in addition to what the Army originally said was there, author Richard Albright said in his handbook "Cleanup of Chemical and Explosive Munitions" (2008).

"As soon as the Corps started digging up pits of shells and bottles of chemical warfare material adjacent to American University, the Northwest Current['s] . . . Charlie Bermpohl, a highly experienced reporter, realized the significance of the story," Albright wrote.

Mr. Bermpohl was the lead reporter in 2004 on a 12-page special section that described a number of unusual health problems in the neighborhood, the result of a year-long survey of 345 households. The work brought him an environmental reporting award from the National Newspaper Association.

"He was always amused that here we were in Iraq looking high and low for weapons of mass destruction, and here they were in our neighborhoods, a few miles away from the Capitol," said his wife of 35 years, Barbara Bermpohl, of Washington.

Charles Thomas Bermpohl was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and attended Wagner College in Staten Island, N.Y. He went to work for Woodstock Week in Upstate New York just as the 1967 Woodstock Festival was staged. The paper's music reporter, assigned to cover the massive event, got stuck in traffic, so Mr. Bermpohl bicycled there. He became friends with some of the musicians, drinking with blues musician Paul Butterfield, flirting with folk singer Mary Travers and discussing Bob Dylan's love life with him.

He later worked for the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union and as a political reporter for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. That job brought him to Washington.

He worked for the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association in the late 1980s and the Government Printing Office.

His marriage to Janet Bermpohl ended in divorce.

He joined the Current newspapers in 1997, ostensibly covering real estate and Georgetown. But just as at Woodstock, he spotted the real story and made himself an expert on the Spring Valley controversy.

Current publisher and editor Davis Kennedy praised Mr. Bermpohl's news judgment and willingness to politely challenge authority, even that of his own boss.

One activist had credited Mr. Bermpohl with keeping the pressure on the Army and then on public officials until they acted in the Spring Valley case, and Kennedy said he agreed.

Mr. Bermpohl left the newspaper in 2004 to work on a still-unpublished book about the Spring Valley chemicals. Seven chapters are completed, but he had been too ill to work on the book in the past few months, Barbara Bermpohl said. A Washington area filmmaker is also at work on a documentary about the topic.

"He felt if there was more digging, more research, the mystery would be solved," his wife said. "I hope to find someone to finish it."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company