What we know about the ongoing cleanup projects on AU property
Army Corps of Engineers has paused work while investigating chemical exposure incident
When the Army Corps of Engineers first closed the Intramural Field for arsenic testing in March 2001, American University could not have anticipated it would still be grappling with cleanup projects over 16 years later.
Now, the work being done on 4825 Glenbrook Road has been paused until investigators know why workers digging on the site showed signs of chemical exposure in August. The substance was undetected by the Army’s air quality monitoring systems, and five workers were forced to stop working and taken to the hospital as a precaution.
“While our teams were digging, some of them exhibited symptoms of potential exposure, including eye irritation and other minor symptoms,” said Christopher Gardner, a communications official at the Baltimore District of the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE).
Here’s what we know so far about the cleanup projects and the investigation into exposure at the site.
A brief history of the cleanups
The history of the project extends back to 1917, when the U.S. Army used AU’s campus to test chemical weapons during World War I. Army operations were held in Northwest Washington in what is known known as the Spring Valley neighborhood. ACE tried for years to pinpoint the location of a waste pit that was captured in a 1918 photograph.
On the back of the photograph, Sergeant Charles Maurer, who is shown standing over the pit, wrote: “The most feared and respected place on the grounds. The bottles are full of mustard [gas], to be destroyed here. In Death Valley. The hole called Hades.”
ACE eventually discovered what it believes to be the “hole called Hades” -- on University-owned property at 4825 Glenbrook Road. ACE returned to the Spring Valley neighborhood in the 1990s for cleanup and testing after ACE’s discovery of leftover materials from the project, including exploded munitions items, some of which are still being discovered on AU’s campus.
AU was one of many sites around the area selected by ACE for environmental testing. While testing the different areas on campus for contaminated soil, ACE found areas had higher than normal levels of arsenic, according to AU’s website dedicated to the project. Arsenic was found at the Glenbrook site in 2010, The Eagle previously reported, and ACE demolished the house there in 2012.
The University also owns a residential property at 4835 Glenbrook Road: the currently vacant official residence for the University President. Former president Benjamin Ladner resided there in the late 1990s and early 2000s, as did former president Neil Kerwin. Current AU president Sylvia Burwell was planning to move into the property, according to the Northwest Current, but now will not after more testing in the house’s basement was announced in September.
According to a 2013 Washingtonian article, ACE planned to spend an estimated $12 million to excavate and restore the Glenbrook Road site. At the time, ACE said the dig “could last into 2014.” Four years later, ACE is still working to excavate the site, and will continue to clean and test the area well into 2018.
The status of the cleanup of AU property on Glenbrook Road
Currently, there is no cleanup work being done on main campus, according to Gardner. However, ACE is working on the residential property owned by the University on 4825 Glenbrook Road, according to a memo released by David Taylor, who serves as President Burwell’s chief of staff and secretary for the Board of Trustees.
On Aug. 9, workers at 4825 Glenbrook were exposed to an unknown substance in the contaminated soil of the closed-off area they were digging, Gardner told The Eagle. The substance was undetected by the Army’s air quality monitoring systems. Five workers were forced to stop working and taken to the hospital as a precaution.
They had symptoms of potential exposure with eye irritation and other minor symptoms, but they were cleared to go home later that evening. None of the surrounding area and the AU campus was affected by this substance, Gardner said.
“Any incident where there may have been possible exposure by crew is taken very seriously and until we determine the root cause of this incident, intrusive work on site has been paused at the site,” he said.
According to a report released by ACE in spring 2017, the house at 4825 Glenbrook Road was expected to be returned to its owner by summer of the same year. Currently, the work on that site has been paused until further instructions. The University has given permission for further soil sampling beneath 4835 Glenbrook Road. More information on the exposure to those in and around the area can be found here.
Between October 2007 and December 2008, in another cleanup project at 4835 Glenbrook Road, the Army Corps dug more than 75 pits and found 62 to be uncontaminated. In 14 of the remaining pits, broken lab equipment was found and the area was cleared.
Public Safety Building involved in cleanup
Next up in the project, the area surrounding the demolished Public Safety building will be examined for munitions debris. This site is different from the Glenbrook site, Gardner said, and cleanup efforts were previously conducted at Lot 18 and around the Public Safety building area from 2002-2006 and from 2008-2010.
It was suspected that the debris found around the building could have moved under the structure. The building would need to be demolished in order to remove the foundation and soil underneath, he said.
ACE anticipates the Public Safety building cleanup will turn up “a mix of traditional landfill-type debris, including materials not associated with the Army, as well as munitions debris,” Gardner said. There have been no encounters of chemical warfare or chemical agents in the soil around the Public Safety building, like there was at the Glenbrook Road site, he said.
Gardner anticipates no disturbance to the campus community during the removal work, besides the usual disturbance similar to construction activities often seen around campus. The area will be fenced off with restricted access, he said.
While AU officials have long held that students are not at risk of exposure to harmful chemicals on campus, AU alumni recently formed a Facebook group to share concerns about the safety of the athletics fields near the Glenbrook site and the old Public Safety building area.
In his memo, Taylor said administrators reached out to the leaders of the alumni group to “understand their concerns and to offer information and resources,” citing tests conducted on students, physical plant workers and former athletes that assessed health ramifications from exposure, especially for arsenic ingestion.
“The test indicated no elevated levels in those populations deemed of highest potential exposure,” Taylor wrote in the memo, pointing to the conclusions of a Johns Hopkins report in 2013.
“Residents can be assured that community health is very good and most environmental indicators are in compliance with established standards or are similar to conditions in other urban areas,” the report said.
Watkins Art Building no longer ‘shelter-in-place’ evacuation zone
The Watkins Art Building was the former Shelter-In-Place evacuation zone, which was set as a precaution while workers were digging at 4825 Glenbrook Road. Since work was paused in August when workers showed signs of chemical exposure, the need for a Shelter-In-Place was eliminated.
“The Shelter-in-place protocol was in place to provide notification to our nearby residents and a portion of the AU campus if a chemical release emergency occurred at our site,” Gardner said.
A “high probability operation” was taking place, which meant there was a high chance that contaminated materials would be found, Gardner said. In the history of the Spring Valley project, there has not been an incident where a Shelter-In-Place was required, he added.
What comes next?
The next steps in the cleanup, which Gardner refers to as “remedial action,” will include removal of contaminated soil in two locations in Spring Valley.
“In addition to these two locations, removal for elevated levels of cobalt will also occur at roughly half a dozen locations around southern campus,” Gardner said.
The former Public Safety site will be mobilized in mid-February 2018 by ACE, and work will begin in mid-March 2018. The completion date is anticipated to be June 2018.
For the potential contamination incident at the Glenbrook site, a formal investigation by the Board of Investigation at ACE is underway. The goal is to determine the cause of the exposure to the five workers who showed symptoms while digging. However, air monitoring did not detect any chemical agent. Meanwhile, workers will continue non-intrusive work such as securing the site and covering excavated areas on site.
The Board of Investigation’s report, originally expected to be released in late October, is now slated to be completed in late November.
This article has been updated.