Glenbrook Road munitions cleanup paused after workers hospitalized

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Crews hand-dig contaminated soil at 4825 Glenbrook Road NW a day before seven workers were hospitalized Aug. 9 for possible chemical exposure. (photo courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Workers cleaning up a contaminated Spring Valley property were hospitalized last Wednesday after suffering symptoms of possible chemical exposure, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the cleanup effort.

In response to the Aug. 9 incident, the Army has suspended excavation at the 4825 Glenbrook Road NW property and is now reviewing its next steps. The most recent hazard was limited to the closed-off work area and posed no risk to nearby residents or the American University campus, Army officials said.

The Army Corps has been cleaning up the Spring Valley neighborhood since 1993, when it became clear that the area had been contaminated by World War I-era chemical munitions testing conducted by the U.S. Army at American University. The property at 4825 Glenbrook is perhaps the neighborhood’s most notorious, and the Army tore down the home in 2012 to fully investigate the site and remove its soil down to bedrock.

The cleanup site at 4825 Glenbrook Road NW spills onto the adjacent unoccupied home at 4835. (Brian Kapur/The Current/August 2017)

Last Wednesday, workers were hand-digging along the property line between 4825 and 4835 Glenbrook — American University’s official president’s residence, which is currently unoccupied — when they suffered “eye and skin irritation and other minor symptoms,” according to a message from the Army to the community. The workers reported an odor consistent with mustard breakdown products, and seven of them were hospitalized on Wednesday afternoon and released that night.

The work was taking place in a section of the property that the Army terms “low probability” — meaning that it had fewer protections than “high probability” locations, where excavation was conducted under the cover of a protective tent. Army Corps spokesperson Christopher Gardner told The Current that the designations are based on the likelihood of finding intact glass bottles, munitions and munition debris, and explosives, none of which have been found in the low-probability area.

Furthermore, he said, the chemical hazard would have dissipated in the air within about a meter of the exposure point, and was never picked up by the Army’s air-quality monitoring systems. The workers were hand-digging between 5 and 10 feet below ground level when the possible exposure occurred, according to Gardner. They were wearing gloves and other protective clothing.

The Army Corps of Engineers demolished the home at 4825 Glenbrook Road NW in 2012 to investigate the property for soil contamination and buried munitions. (Brady Holt/The Current/November 2012)

“We are currently investigating how our crew might have potentially experienced exposure on site, though we are yet to confirm that to be the case,” Gardner wrote in an email to The Current. “If they were exposed to an unknown chemical while hand digging in the contaminated soil, we will work to determine how that exposure occurred and make any necessary upgrades to site safety that our investigation might recommend.”

It may take months before excavation resumes at 4825 and 4835 Glenbrook, Gardner said, pending the results of the Army’s review. In the meantime, protective plastic sheeting is covering the area where the workers suffered possible exposure, and investigators will be on site this week testing for the presence of various chemicals there.

According to Gardner, the workers had been finding scattered pieces of broken glass related to the Army’s World War I-era activities, and areas of soil there were contaminated with “small black chunks of material with low levels of mustard agent and agent breakdown product.” Once the project resumes, excavation will take place on both sides of the property line, Gardner said.

Intensive cleanup has been underway for years at 4825 Glenbrook Road NW in Spring Valley. (Brian Kapur/The Current/August 2017)

The cleanup at 4825 Glenbrook has been beset with repeated delays. It was originally scheduled to be completed more than three years ago, and until last week’s setback, the Army had hoped to finish restoring the site this coming winter. With further “weeks or months” of delay, the Army isn’t currently speculating on a timeline.

The Army is also continuing to investigate areas of the American University campus and occupied residential properties for buried hazards, though officials say the public faces no imminent threat at these locations.