Some of DC’s most valuable real estate lies on top of strange or even dangerous waste sites. Take Spring Valley, for example. One of the District’s two or three most expensive neighborhoods, it’s also built on top of one of the worst chemical weapons test sites in the country. In 2010, construction workers in Spring Valley noticed a patch of ground that seemed to be smoking. When they dug down, they found a barrel full of white, smoking bottles. Army engineers called in to help dispose of the chemicals identified it as arsenic trichloride, a lethal gas used in World War 1 trench warfare. They also found lewisite, a chemical agent so lethal it had been nicknamed “the dew of death.” Turns out that back in World War 1, American University had been a major testing lab for chemical weapons, and when that war had ended, soldiers had simply buried the leftover chemicals in unmarked sites. (Experts say the 2010 cache was the long-rumored main dump that, back in 1918, had been nicknamed “the hole to Hades.”) Incredibly, all this history had been forgotten until 1993, when utility workers dug up live bombs. The Army Corps of Engineers has since spent hundreds of millions of dollars to clean the area, and the work still isn’t done. (Strangely, property values in the area were barely dented.)
Does all this matter? It might. In 2004, a writer for the Spring Valley weekly paper, the Northwest Current, surveyed 345 households in Spring Valley, near chemical waste sites, and found 160 cases of “chronic, often life-threatening, and rare diseases.” Sure, his survey wasn’t scientifically airtight, but the findings are worrisome. Several people who grew up in Spring Valley and came down with rare illnesses sued the Army, to no avail.
There are other toxic sites in DC – even other dump sites for military chemical waste (many of the worst pollutants in the Anacostia River are from old military dumps) – but few of them have multimillion dollar houses built over them. One exception, at least in the future, could be Kenilworth.
Present-day Kenilworth Park is built on top of what used to be the District’s main landfill. Starting as far back as the Twenties, the city’s trash was dumped and burned there. The landfill was only shut down after a boy playing in the dump burned to death in 1968. The city laid soil over the decades of trash, planted grass, and turned it into a park. Then in the late Nineties, a rogue National Park Services superintendent gave two local contractors permission to dump construction debris there; over half a million tons of it, much of it from the construction of the MCI Center, was dumped there over the next few months. So much debris accumulated that the elevation of 15 acres of parkland was raised by 24 feet. The only problem was that this dumping was in violation of city and federal law. (There had to have been some under-the-table deals made, though; not only was the rogue superintendent not fired, he was promoted.) Though some of the debris was removed, a huge mound of it, dubbed “Mystery Mountain” by locals, remains.
So the site now consists of two separate layers of waste: one, many decades old, is mostly ash and organic waste. The other, only a couple decades old, is mostly construction debris, described as “pipes, steel bars, wood with protruding nails, electrical wiring.” Both are covered over with a thin layer of soil. The problem is, burying some kinds of waste – the kind that’s found in the much older, former landfill layer – only makes the problems worse. As it decays, it gives off various kinds of carcinogens, as well as colorless, odorless methane gas. Which happens to be extremely flammable and explosive.
A National Park Service report from 2012 details Kenilworth Park test results that found PCBs, VOCs, and methane gas in various places around the site. While the NPS concluded that there was no elevated risk of cancer to park visitors, they did advise construction workers not to work there longer than 90 days. They also found methane gas at levels high enough to advise against digging in several areas of the park, due to risk of explosion. Unfortunately, though they did find contaminants, the levels were low enough that the Park Service abandoned their original plan to remove contaminated soil from area, and came up with a new plan to lay down a 24-inch layer of soil on top of everything and cross their fingers.
Does this mean Kenilworth will be Spring Valley East? Not necessarily. For now, it’s a park. Greenspace is a huge draw, so the main of it will remain untouched, but Spring Valley was an empty green space too, back in the 1920s. With property values rising east of the river faster than anywhere else in the city, and thousands of units of housing being built in Parkside, the neighborhood directly adjacent to Kenilworth, it seems only a matter of time before first one edge parcel, and then another, and then another is sliced off by the city and sold to developers. (And if you think borders mean anything to people with money, look at how the houses that abut Rock Creek Park have crept up to, and often over, the line.) Some builders might clean out the site before building, but others might take the Park Service report at its word and assume that two feet of soil is enough of a buffer between their brand new townhomes and decades of highly compacted, gaseous garbage.