Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Sunday, November 18, 2018

Locals decry Army Corps' lack of public safety plan

The Army Corps of Engineers does not have an emergency public safety plan in place for when it destroys the chemical munitions behind Sibley Hospital this April.

This information became clear at a City Council roundtable March 29 aimed at determining the level of risk associated with destroying the munitions and learning what public safety plan was in place.

"We have grave concerns about what if something goes wrong," Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh said at a City Council roundtable held Monday, noting that the area where the destruction would take place is in a residential area and immediately next to a hospital.

"What is the worst-case scenario we will face?" Cheh said. "What contingency plans are in place to safeguard public health in case of an accident?"

Army Corps Project Manager Todd Beckwith told the Council that the Corps had determined a public safety plan to be unnecessary.

"One of our objectives in planning for the destruction operation was to ensure that we had sufficient safety measures in place on the federal property so the operation would have no impact on the public, thus eliminating the need for public protection actions beyond the federal property," Beckwith said.

In late March, Spring Valley residents received an announcement flyer in the mail from the Corps about the upcoming munitions destruction.

The flyer stated that the Corps plans to destroy five chemical munitions containing arsine, mustard and lewisite inside its Explosive Destruction System structure located on the federal property behind Sibley.

The chemical rounds will be placed in a stainless steel containment structure, rigged with a small explosive and detonated, causing the old munitions to crack open. The chemicals released will then be promptly neutralized by other chemical agents inside the structure.

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners and Spring Valley residents present at the hearing said they wanted to know more about the Corps' plans and their discontent with what they called inadequate transparency in past and current Army Corps operations.

When asked if he was informed of any public safety plan in place in the case that something should go awry, ANC 3D02 Commissioner Tom Smith said no and added that Sibley hospital was also unaware of the scheduled munitions destruction until ANC commissioners informed the hospital at an ANC meeting last month.

"It seems to me that it should have been an automatic component of this project - that there was a public protection plan put in place, that it was communicated fully to residents of the neighborhood," Smith said. "And if we, as ANC commissioners, can't get those answers ... how are the residents supposed to get those answers, and how does that bolster confidence?"

However, the D.C. Department of Homeland Security always has a public safety plan in place in case of emergencies, according to officials from the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency who testified at the meeting.

But until last Monday, the Corps had never heard of the plan, and Cheh excoriated the lack of communication between the two agencies.

ANC 3D04 Commissioner Stu Ross said the Corps' decision to destroy the munitions was one of the "all-time bad judgments" he had ever encountered.

"Just pause and think for a minute about what could happen if someone got it wrong or these munitions do not cooperate 90 years after their production and burial," Ross said. "The longest-running play in America is here in Washington, and it is named 'Shear Madness,' which is exactly what this decision is."

You can reach this staff writer at ccottrell@theeagleonline.com.


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