- After World War I, munitions including shells of poisonous liquid mustard were buried in a then-rural area. The cleanup has forced evacuations at American University and prompted concerns about illness.
Greg Nielson pushed a joystick, and a video camera zoomed in on three men in moon suits and gas masks as they prepared to blow up a weapon of mass destruction less than five miles from the White House.
Later, the crew slid the rusting World War I artillery shell into a small steel vault and sealed the door. They detonated a shaped explosive charge to cut the projectile open, and pumped in reagent to neutralize its contents: liquid mustard, an infamous chemical warfare agent.
The process is "as safe as sliced bread," said Nielson, the operation leader, at a control panel in a nearby trailer. "Maybe safer."
The destruction of five poison-filled shells and 20 other suspect items ended last week. But the strange saga of America's most unusual hazardous waste site is far from over.
Since 1993, the Army Corps of Engineers has removed 84 chemical-filled shells and more than 1,000 conventional munitions, plus at least 44,000 tons of contaminated dirt and debris, from the verdant campus of American University and the manicured lawns of Spring Valley, one of Washington's most prestigious neighborhoods.
The toxic trash dates from 1917 and 1918, when the military leased the then-rural campus and nearby farms to test gruesome gases. After the war, soldiers and scientists buried lethal leftovers in unmarked pits, calling the area Death Valley.
A developer renamed it Spring Valley, and mansions sprouted. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush lived here before they entered the White House. U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), among other top officials and foreign diplomats, reside here now.
The Pentagon says 5,000 old arsenals and other former defense sites may hold hazardous waste. But the bomb hunt here "is the No. 1 priority," said Col. David Anderson, the Army Corps district commander. "This is the nation's capital."
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