A controversial monument on the Mall has a toxic past and present.
Nestled between the Reflecting Pool and 17th Street on the National Mall is an innocuous-looking fountain called the Rainbow Pool. Its chief claim to fame is serving as the launch pad for fireworks during celebrations on the Mall. But the dilapidated landmark is now ground zero for an equally colorful battle over the $155 million National World War II Memorial proposed for the site.
The memorial’s location and design have been the source of intense rancor among an alphabet soup of federal agencies and a bevy of politicians and citizens’ groups for more than five years. Proponents have moved to shove the project through with special legislation, and opposition to the memorial has focused on the plan’s environmental risks and controversialsome would say totalitarianaesthetics.
Construction was set to begin last month, but it has been postponed following a temporary restraining order imposed March 9 by a federal judge hearing a lawsuit to block the memorial. A further roadblock was placed in the way of the memorial last week, when the National Capital Planning Commission decided to re-examine the project because of potentially illegal votes cast in favor of the plan by the commission’s former chair, Harvey Gantt.
“We could be delayed an indeterminate amount of time,” says Mike Conley, spokesperson for the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC), the federal agency sponsoring the memorial. “It’s very frustrating, because this has been a very long, publicly debated process.”
As the pitched battle continues, new details have emerged about the history of the Rainbow Pool and significant environmental contamination at the site, including elevated levels of arsenic. The contaminants were discovered in a study conducted last year by TAMS Consultants, and their presence came to light only during recent legal proceedings. The levels of arsenic and other contaminants at the pool exceed Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-specified maximum levels in both the soil and groundwater.
These toxins complicate planning for the memorial, because construction and maintenance of the new landmark require the pumping of water from the site into the Tidal Basin and the Potomac River. To maintain the Mall’s characteristic vistas, the memorial plaza must be sunk up to 15 feet below ground. With groundwater levels at the site often at a depth of less than 6 feet, the memorial would be inundated with constant reminders of the Mall’s swampy past, and its position on the Potomac’s 25-year flood plain would require massive pumping operations during floods and heavy rain.
“If they had done a proper environmental assessment when they were identifying the site, they would have uncovered all of this information about arsenic and other chemicals,” says Judy Scott Feldman, a history professor at American University and co-chair of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, the chief plaintiff in the lawsuit. “Our lawsuit says, ‘Go back and do it right.’”
The lawsuit hinges in part on the plaintiffs’ claim that the federal agencies responsible for approving the site violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 by conducting inadequate environmental impact studies, and troubling questions about the scrutiny of the site linger.
The National Park Service issued an environmental assessment report of the proposed memorial in May 1998. The report cited tests by the Army Corps of Engineers from June 1997, in which various petroleum-related contaminants were discovered in all 12 field screeningsshedding an oily new light on the Rainbow Pool’s name.
The Corps of Engineers report concluded: “It is highly recommended that additional site sampling and testing be performed on the soils and groundwater to better characterize the levels of contamination on site.”
This strong recommendation apparently went unheeded. Less than two months after the environmental assessment was issued, the Park Service issued a formal Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) on the human environment by the proposed memorial. The finding essentially gave the memorial’s sponsor carte blanche to proceed without any further action on environmental issues.
“The environmental assessment mentions high levels of toxic chemicals and calls for further studies, but they didn’t do them,” says Feldman. “How is it that such damaging findings, and their own strong recommendations, regarding one of the most sacred and historic of our national spaces, were totally ignored by the National Park Service and other federal agencies?”
The Park Service referred questions about why the Corps of Engineers report was ignored to the Department of Justice. Charles Miller, spokesperson for the Department of Justice’s Office of Public Affairs, declined to comment, citing the ongoing memorial litigation.
Conley says that nothing discovered at the site was significant enough to preclude moving forward: “A FONSI implies that [the Park Service has] looked at all the factors and that the project can take place without long-term impact. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t mitigating factors that need to be taken care of.”
The possible origin of the arsenic and petroleum contaminants is among the most bizarre aspects of what’s been called “the brawl on the Mall.”
Formerly a fetid portion of the Potomac Flats flood plain, the area around the Rainbow Pool has at times been home to a sewage-coated canal, a cattle grazing ground and slaughterhouse, army campsites, munitions buildings, and the spillover from famous protests and marches centering on the Lincoln Memorial. A History of the National Capital, by Wilhelmus Bogart Bryan, notes that “the malaria-breeding Potomac Flats” was at one point the “principal menace to the health of the city.”
The swampy region was reclaimed with fill taken from dredging the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers channels in the 1880s and 1890s. Portions of the fill were taken from silt deposits around the Washington Navy Yard, which was engaged in shipbuilding, ordnance production, and other industrial activities during that period. The wastes generated in these pursuits later earned a portion of the Navy Yard a Superfund classification from the EPA in 1997.
The EPA’s Web site description of the Navy Yard Superfund site lists wastes that “would include metals used in ordnance production and paint-spraying; solvents used in cleaning…petroleum products and wastes; and PCB-containing oils in storage tanks and electrical equipment.”
Arsenic occurs naturally as well, and whether the contaminants in the soil and groundwater at the Rainbow Pool site are attributable solely to dredging is not entirely certain. Joshua Ungar, a program manager for the Anacostia Watershed Society, argues that it would surprise him if the contamination were a purely natural occurrence.
“The Navy Yard has been one of the region’s biggest polluters,” says Ungar.
The memorial’s sponsor contends that arsenic and other contaminants are already running into the Tidal Basin from the site and that the building of the memorial would actually improve the quality of discharges.
“There are a couple of storm-water drainage pipes that run through the site, and groundwater is seeping into them,” Conley says. “We’re replacing the pipes.”
The ABMC admits that the groundwater at the site contains elevated levels of toxic metals, but Conley asserts that the memorial would treat and dispose of it in full accordance with EPA provisions: “The net result is that whatever will be going into the Tidal Basin will be cleaner than it is now.”
Memorial opponents argue that toxic groundwater treatment will create aesthetic disruption on the Mall and add structures that are not included in approved memorial plans.
“They’ve never been required to provide any treatment plans, and they’ve already gotten final approval on the design plans, but now they might have to build a new treatment building,” Feldman claims.
But Conley says that a formal treatment facility won’t be necessary. “The exact method [of treatment] hasn’t been determined yet. There are a variety of engineering solutions, but at this point I can’t say what will be put into action.”
The EPA Region III headquarters in Philadelphia did not respond to queries about what the treatment solutions might entail.
The entire battle over the memorial may become moot if U.S. Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Alaska) has his way.
On March 20, Hutchinson introduced a bill that calls for the ABMC to “expeditiously proceed with the construction of the World War II memorial at the dedicated Rainbow Pool site in the District of Columbia without regard to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, the Commemorative Works Act, or any other law pertaining to the siting or design for the World War II memorial.”
Hutchinson’s bill would also prohibit any further administrative or judicial reviews of the memorial. The senator did not issue a statement with his introduction of the bill, and his office did not return phone requests for comment.
“The terrible irony of it all is that World War II, more than any other event, was about democracy and freedom,” says Feldman. “But this senator has the gall to say that we will break the law, ignore the law, to honor World War II vets. It’s perverse.”
Hutchinson’s bill reflects the feeling of urgency among proponents of the project. The sentiment, as Conley of the ABMC says, is that “the clock is ticking on that generation.”
Citing Department of Veterans Affairs figures, Conley says, “The shame of this delay is that of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, only 5 million survive. We lose about 1,100 veterans a day. Over the last five years, we’ve been through 22 public hearings, and a few people didn’t like the answer.”
But not all World War II vets support the memorial project. David Grinnell, a District resident who is a World War II combat veteran and longtime member and former chair of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, isn’t against a memorial for those who served with him, but he strongly opposes the ABMC’s current plans. “As one concerned about preserving our nation’s capital,” he says, “I feel that the site and design of the memorial is not only wrong, it’s criminal.”
Delays in the project have cost time, but one problem that the sponsor of the memorial doesn’t have is money. According to Conley, fundraising for the memorial’s total projected cost of $155 million has been achieved and surpassed, with $170 million now in the coffers.
Private donations are the bulk of the memorial’s revenue. Conley says that 450 veterans’ organizations, representing 11 million vets, support the memorial. The nation’s largest such organization, the American Legion, has donated $4.5 million to the project.
Even that outpouring of support has become a target in the fight over the memorial. When an estimated construction cost of only about $59 million was recently revealed in the lawsuit, opponents pointed to the disparity between cost and fundraising.
Feldman claims that a recent audit of the project showed that 26 percent of its budget was earmarked for PR and fundraisinga $44 million cut of total expenditures. She notes that many of those costs were donated by organizations and prominent celebrities, including Tom Hanks, who starred in Steven Spielberg’s WORLD WAR II opus Saving Private Ryan.
“One has to wonder why it costs so much to raise money from a grateful nation, in which everyone is in agreement that a memorial is needed,” Feldman says. “The Tom Hanks ads were donated by the Ad Council. Tom Hanks donated all his time. Where is all the money going?”
Conley says this charge is misleading, claiming that the $59 million figure is only a preliminary, “pure construction” estimate. “There’s more than just construction,” he continues. “There’s site selection, mandatory maintenance fees, groundbreaking and dedication ceremonies, fundraising, and administrative costs. When you add up all of that, it works out to about $155 million.”
The excess funds are to remain in a trust fund, which will benefit the memorial solely, the ABMC says.
Although Feldman argues that she thinks that donors would be disappointed to learn that two-thirds of a $25 contribution goes to something other than the actual memorial, Ray G. Smith, national commander of the American Legion, disagrees.
“You get these complaints every time something is built in Washington,” says Smith. “Everyone has had a chance to speak. We think it’s time to move on with this project. I [predict] that this will be the most visited memorial in Washington.” CP