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Thank you for Paul Fain’s piece detailing the threat of toxic contamination at the site of the proposed World War II memorial at the Rainbow Pool (“All This and World War II,” 4/13). A glance back into the history of the area reveals that the contamination may be stemming from more than contaminated fill from the Navy Yard site.
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According to a 1967 booklet on the improvements to the District sewer system, between 1800 and 1850 sewers from public buildings near the White House discharged on public grounds a short distance south of the White House, where the flow stagnated and became a marsh. In a feeble attempt to upgrade, those sewers were directed into the Washington Canal in 1851. The canal, a misbegotten attempt to actualize L’Enfant’s plan of providing a stream access to the south entrance of the White House, became, after its construction in 1815, the destination of most of the sewage in the city. One of the major flaws with that plan is that, because of major siltation problems, the water in the canal (mostly sewage) generally stagnated. The marshes at the mouth of the canal, near the present-day Lincoln Memorial, became not only nasty but also a threat to human health—outbreaks of cholera and malaria were common. The canal was not covered over and converted to the present Old B Street Sewer until 1872. The vestigial outlet can still be seen in the sea wall just north of the Memorial Bridge and is known among sewer-system cognoscenti as CSO No. 20.
Mike Conley’s assertion that the American Battle Monuments Commission will magically solve the contamination problems by replacing the storm-water pipes and treating the contaminated water is barely credible. The commission ignores what will almost surely be larger problems at the Rainbow Pool site. It should consider a new site.