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Army Corps of Engineers, Project Update | Archive


December 12, 2000

TO: Campus Community
FROM: Benjamin Ladner
SUBJECT: Army Corps of Engineers Activity


The December issue of the Washingtonian magazine ran a story on the Army Corps of Engineers' testing and excavation activities on the AU campus and in the surrounding neighborhood. Understandably, it has prompted a good deal of discussion and questions.

Because of some misleading information in the article, I feel it would be helpful to reassure the AU community about what is known. Attached to this memo is the Army Corps' response to the Washingtonian, detailing their findings and the scope of their work. Most importantly, the university's paramount concern in dealing with this issue has always been the safety of our students, faculty, staff, and visitors.

A November 29 memo from Assistant Vice President of Facilities Jorge Abud described projected activities of what the Army Corps has called a "final phase" of testing and excavation on or near AU property. As reported in recent issues of the American Weekly, similar activities have occurred off and on over the past 15 years. During this time, the Corps has sought to identify and remove potentially harmful munitions and chemicals dating from 1917-20 when the U.S. military used the AU campus as a chemical weapons development and testing site. The local news media has reported extensively on this topic over the past several years, including the Washington Post, which has published more than 25 articles on the subject.

From previous reports, many of you are familiar with the Corps' activities and history in relation to AU, but others may not be and would welcome additional information. In addition to this memo and others we will send as the work proceeds toward its conclusion, the Army Corps has a website that provides both historical and current project information: The Army Corps also issues newsletters and updates on their operations and holds regularly scheduled public meetings to share the latest details.

Army Corps Operations, 1993-1995

After finding a munitions burial pit in Spring Valley in 1993, the Army Corps of Engineers began a two-year process of mapping, soil sampling, and metal detection to search for left-over munitions in the surrounding neighborhoods, covering more than 600 acres. Surface sweeps (metal detection) began in spring 1993, followed by 11 excavations from fall 1993 to winter 1995. The Corps worked with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the D.C. Office of Emergency Preparedness to establish safety protocols and procedures for these operations. The AU campus was part of this sweep, and went through the same soil sampling and metal detection procedures as the entire area. At the end of this 1993-95 operation, based on their findings, the campus was no longer a point of interest in their survey and excavation work.

Army Corps Operations, 1997-2000

A September 1997 review of historical maps and data determined that a site in the 4800 block of Glenbrook Road near the AU campus perimeter required further investigation. In February 1998, the Corps conducted a survey of that area and concluded that two disposal pits might exist on that site. Work began at the site (4801 Glenbrook Road) in February 1999, following coordination with the EPA, D.C. Government, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, the U.S. State Department, American University, and the Spring Valley community.

American University allowed the Corps to park their vehicles on campus property along the perimeter to ease access to the site and to keep the vehicles off the surrounding neighborhood streets. The site includes the grounds of the residence of the South Korean Ambassador to the United States, a few neighborhood residences, and the back property line of American University, behind Hamilton Hall and the Kreeger Building. The excavation from March 1999 to March 2000 included the removal of glass, metal containers, scrap, wooden training aids, ceramic pieces, and other debris.

Army Corps Operations, 2000-2001

Current work on the campus perimeter behind Hamilton and Kreeger buildings is part of the Corps' operation launched in 1999 at 4801 Glenbrook to search for any additional burial pits of World War I materials, munitions, and scrap. During December 2000 and perhaps January 2001, the Corps will remove and replace soil from the 4801 site (which is the South Korean Ambassador's residence, behind AU's Hamilton and Kreeger buildings). Approximately 200 truckloads of dirt will be moved out and 200 truckloads of replacement soil will be brought in. Trucks will enter and exit our campus through the Rockwood Parkway gate.

Excavation work on campus will take place during winter break while students and many faculty and staff members are away. This January 8 - 11 project will be confined to a small area behind Kreeger and Hamilton buildings. As a safety precaution, persons working in those buildings will be temporarily relocated during those days. This is standard procedure for Army Corps excavation work of this nature, and was a process followed numerous times during the 1993-95 operation in northwest Washington.

Impact on Other Areas of the Campus

During the construction of Bender Arena in 1986, the university asked the Corps to assess the site to ensure that it was safe for excavation and building. The Corps tested the site and declared it safe, and construction proceeded without incident. In 1993, an AU Public Safety officer found a small munition off campus along New Mexico Avenue. The Metro Police ordnance division coordinated with the Army to retrieve and dispose of the item. In 1994 while re-sodding the soccer field, workers found a scrap metal fragment from a non-chemical World War I munition. Metro Police and the Army retrieved the harmless item, conducted metal detection tests on the field, and found no other objects or evidence for concern. Workers planting a tree at the President's Residence in 1996 found several small glass containers. APEX Environmental, Inc., removed the materials and restored the property in accordance with OSHA procedures. Soil and air quality tests did not reveal a health hazard.

The Child Development Center (CDC) and the athletic fields were mentioned in the Washingtonian article as possible areas of concern. To date, these areas have not been found to require additional attention or treatment. The CDC, athletic fields, and the rest of campus were surveyed and tested during the 1993-95 operation and nothing suspicious turned up, aside from a single, harmless metal fragment. Nevertheless, as a precaution, the Corps has recently taken additional soil samples from the CDC area and the athletic fields. Test results from November 2000 soil analysis indicate that the CDC soil is within the EPA acceptable level of safety. Athletic fields test results are due in the next few weeks. AU will continue to monitor the Corps tests and results to ensure that no future safety concerns arise.

The Washingtonian Article

It is unfortunate that the writer of the Washingtonian article conveyed an unfounded assumption that since 1921 American University has withheld vital information regarding the presence of munitions and chemicals that adversely affect the health and safety of the campus community and our surrounding neighborhood. This is patently false. My predecessors and I have worked closely with the Army Corps, the AU community, and our neighbors to share what we know about the impact of the World War I military operations on our campus. I was also sorry that the Washingtonian article printed a quote from me that I never made. Indeed, I have never been interviewed by or sent any statement to the writer.

Along with everyone in northwest Washington, we are eager for the Army Corps of Engineers to complete its excavation and soil replacement activities. Current projections for completion point to the end of summer 2001. As in the past, we will continue to monitor their progress, to ensure the safety of our campus, and to keep the community apprised of what we know throughout the process.