New technology helps find buried chemical weapons in DC's Spring Valley neighborhood

New technology helps find buried chemical weapons in DC's Spring Valley neighborhood. (Photo: ABC7)

Encrusted with dirt and rust, the table, in a US Army Corps of Engineers office, is covered with mortar shells, cannon ball fragments, hand tools, even a toy gun that looks like the real thing.

Each has a story to tell.

“At this point it’ll be a needle in a haystack,” says project manager Harold Zahl. “We’re looking for the last of the last, leaving no stone unturned.”

The items, covered with a think, brownish patina, were all excavated in the affluent Spring Valley neighborhood, near American University.

The collection, part of a massive, $270-million chemical weapons cleanup by army engineers.

The marathon project is all too familiar to residents who’ve seen their yards dug up, water tested, and mysterious metal objects extracted from their properties.

“I think one of the initial sites was down in the back yard back here,” says Robert Birdsong, who grew up in the area. “They were digging up yards here once upon a time, so I’m sure everyone’s quite relieved.”

Relieved, because the army is launching a $12-million program that uses high tech to examine and differentiate between buried chemical weapons, and harmless metal objects like rebar and nails.

It may be the final chapter of a story that dates back 100 years, to World War One, when 661 acres in Spring Valley were used by the US Government to test-fire those weapons.

“This was all just cornfields and pastures,” says George Noble, who’s doing carpentry work in the neighborhood. “And they just buried it. This is pretty much where a lot of it was hitting.”

“This is where they developed mustard gas and protective equipment for the US Army for the doughboys before they went overseas,” adds Zahl.

Decades passed.

Spring Valley became an address for some of the District’s most expensive homes.

And then, in 1993, a contractor uncovered some buried military ordinance at 52nd Court, NW.

The Army began digging in.

Cleanup crews would eventually remove 500 munition items, 400 pounds of lab glass, and 100 tons of soil contaminated with mustard gas, arsenic, and other chemicals.

“We identified 91 properties as possibly having ordinance,” Zahl says. “We’re going to be doing extensive testing just to make sure that we don’t leave anything behind.”

The army’s task is to find the remains of any still-buried chemical weapons.

To do that, search teams will use a device called a manned portable vector, or MPV for short.

The machine is more than just a metal detector.

“Essentially it has an electromagnetic pulse, that leaves a magnetic signature on an item, and then a receiver,” Zahl explains. “(It) could tell about the size, shape, depth, wall thickness, and whether or not it looks like an ordinance item.”

The MPV technology is very precise; its operators work in a grid pattern, to map out the location of metal objects underground, all while detecting differences between ordinance and harmless pieces of metal.

An army corps spokesperson says search teams will err on the side of caution, and will dig further if they have doubts about an object.

During initial tests, the army says the MPV correctly identified buried metal objects every time.

Birdsong says he hopes the device will end decades of uncertainty.

“I think everyone’s kind of excited and happy about that,” Birdsong smiles. “You know I’m sure everyone in this neighborhood is sort of concerned about how this affects property values. Presumably this will put a period on the whole episode.”

After an initial screening, the team will put together a dig list of items to be removed.

The army will later give property owners a clearance letter that can be shared with prospective buyers or realtors.

“The army corps can give them an assurance letter saying that we have met requirements in the decision document, and our regulators agree,” Zahl says.

Clearing each of the 91 houses will take about two weeks.

The army has pledged to restore landscaping on each affected property to its original appearance.

It’s hoped Spring Valley will be considered chemical-free by 2021.

Noble, hired to work at one specific house in the neighborhood, says the changes will be a long time in coming.

“Peace of mind for the homeowner is the bottom line,” he says quietly.

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