In the lead-up to America’s entry into World War I, the widespread use of chemical weapons by European powers posed serious challenges. The U.S. Army was behind its eventual foes in developing these weapons, and at the time, no American military research was more secret, or urgent, than chemical warfare.
At the American University campus, approximately 1,500 chemists, scientists and soldiers assembled at American University Experiment Station from 1917 to 1918 to develop offensive and defensive capabilities in chemical warfare. Laboratory buildings and structures were quickly built to facilitate research and testing. Then, nearly as swiftly as the work began, came the end of WWI in November 1918. Plans were then launched to wind down the weapons research facility.
Many of the operations, equipment and supplies were transferred to Edgewood Arsenal in nearby Maryland when the experiment station closed. There were also chemicals, equipment, and other items that, following the standard practices of the time, were buried at the site in disposal trenches and covered over. Over the years, the secret and urgent research was largely forgotten and the existence of the disposal pits at Glenbrook Road faded from memory.
Decades later at American University, chemical waste material was discovered when a disposal pit of military munitions was unearthed during trenching for utility lines – which followed earlier reports of trash and debris that gave off foul odors and irritated workers’ eyes and noses. This discovery of chemical waste kicked off the USACE Environmental Restoration program for Spring Valley Formerly Used Defense Site (FUDS).
“Our team faced daunting technical, engineering, health, safety, regulatory and community relations challenges due to the nature of the contaminants, as well as the site's condition and history,” said USACE Baltimore District Project Manager Dan Noble. “This project represents one of the most unique burials of discarded WWI chemical warfare agents and was one of the most complex in the history of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Environmental Restoration program. The successful completion of this project represents an incredible team effort and a significant accomplishment.”
During the remediation, the team used in-depth aerial photography and detailed analysis of findings from past investigations of the site to enable precise determination of which areas had high probability of contamination, and which did not. The team also developed an innovative safety technique using a large tent operating under negative pressure with three Chemical Agent Filtration Systems to reduce the risk of any hazardous chemicals escaping the tent and reaching the neighboring properties, rather than the smaller blast structures often used in such remediation.
The team also efficiently and effectively dealt with a safety incident in 2017 when workers noticed a distinct odor and became nauseous. After an immediate shutdown, a board of investigation was formed and following exhaustive inquiry, additional precautions were instituted in order to ensure worker and public safety.
Noble said a key to the project’s success was the team’s development of strong partnerships and interactions with stakeholders, made possible by a robust program management system. With support at all management levels, the team collaborated with internal offices including Real Estate, Office of Counsel, and fund managers at the Baltimore District, as well as in USACE headquarters and Department of the Army, to assure that all regulatory and legal requirements were met and that adequate funds were available for the Glenbrook Road cleanup.
USACE Baltimore District commander Col. Estee S. Pinchasin said the team has met its goals of protecting human health and the environment by reducing risk in the safest manner possible, while achieving acceptance of the cleanup by regulators and the community.
“Completion of the Glenbrook Road cleanup represents a significant milestone in support of the DOD mission to reduce threats to human health and the environment on non-DOD owned lands resulting from past military use,” said Pinchasin. “Removal of the many hazardous materials at Glenbrook Road represents the exact type of hazard the DOD wished to mitigate when it began the FUDS mission. The successful completion of this project in 2021 represents an important step in fulfilling the DOD promise of mitigating these types of hazards to ensure the safety of the American public.”