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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has some warnings for people going onto the old Camp Simms site in Southeast. Don’t wander off the path, because it’s easy to trip over exposed roots and hurt yourself. Watch out for bees and the occasional poisonous spider. It’s best to wear boots in case you step on a snake. Wear long pants and a long-sleeve shirt—there’s some evil poison ivy out there.
Oh, and don’t pick anything up.
Camp Simms is, in Department of Defense (DOD) bureaucratese, a “formerly used defense site.” From 1904 until 1958, it was a firing range for everybody from the Marine Corps to civilian rifle clubs. And if the term “firing range” makes you think of guys with pistols shooting holes in paper targets, think again: During World War I and World War II especially, the folks at Camp Simms were lobbing live shells and grenades.
A lot of those shells and grenades are still around, a surprising number just lying on the ground. Though DOD was authorized to clean up former ranges in 1988, it didn’t home in on Camp Simms until Metro found six Stokes mortar rounds in July 1994 when it was digging wells in preparation for the expansion of the Green Line. A crew from Andrews Air Force Base came out and, in the words of one Corps of Engineers expert, “used an excessive amount of dynamite” to detonate the mortars. The resulting explosion broke windows all around the neighborhood and alerted residents to the problem of live ordnance in their midst. The Corps of Engineers has been trying to clean up Camp Simms ever since. But the project has been beset by delays, some unique to the site, some that could only happen in D.C.
First, remediation crews found a lot more munitions than they expected in areas that archival research indicated should be fairly clean. By August 1995, they either had to ship off or detonate over 30 pieces of live ammunition. Cleanup supervisors decided the problem was so bad they needed to regroup and do a more intensive survey of the whole 170-acre Camp Simms site, delaying the project by a year. There have also been staff resignations, bad weather, and the usual glitches involved in running a high-tech, labor-intensive project. Crews even had to stop work for 45 minutes one day in July so they could take cover when they heard gunshots coming from a nearby neighborhood.
While they’re back on the case, the crews move through the fields of Camp Sims at a funereal pace. In order to cover every last inch of the complex, seven crew members walk side by side over 5-foot-wide strips of land. The crew’s point man methodically waves a magnometer—a souped-up metal detector—over the ground. The hypersensitive device chirps over the slightest trace of metal in the soil below—it’ll go berserk over barbed wire or rusty nails. And the tons of scrap metal buried on Camp Simms make it hard to figure out whether the magnometer is whooping because it has happened upon a harmless coil of cable—or a Stokes mortar containing two-and-a-half pounds of explosives. “You can tell the size if you’ve got enough experience,” says Bob Stephens, safety officer for Human Factors Application Inc. (HFA), the firm hired by the Army to clear the site.
If crew members can’t figure out what’s causing the chirps, they haul in their trusty “engineering control,” a metal booth with inch-thick sides about the size of an outhouse. After they place the booth over the flagged spot, they tab some lucky crew member to stand inside and dig until he can identify the mystery “hit.” The engineering control is designed to protect the bystanding crewmen in case the poking prompts an explosion from the mysterious mass of metal. “If somebody hits something and it blows up, that way we don’t have to scrape ’em from the trees,” says Stephens, who boasts a spotless record on crew safety. After the hit is identified, the searchers move on to the next spot and start the whole process all over again. When they find munitions that aren’t obviously dead, they ship them off to Pennsylvania for detonation, or, if digging and shipping are too dangerous, they detonate on-site.
The crew’s pastoral pace through Camp Simms has left Metro and other entities with claims on the site unhappy. The bulk of the land—about 145 acres—is Oxon Run Park, which is administered by the National Park Service. But Greater Southeast Community Hospital and Mildred Green Elementary School are also on old Camp Simms property. And Metro is champing at the bit to push its Green Line extension through the area.
Kim Parker, project manager for the sweep, confirms that complaints from Metro have been the loudest. “We’re going to try to work with Metro, but we’ve told them they’ve got the option to hire their own contractor,” she says—and assume liability for any mistakes. Parker says that given that option, Metro seems to have decided the Corps remediation contractor is all right, after all.
HFA has completed phase one of the cleanup, which makes the 24-acre area east of Mildred Green safe for all comers. Project spokeswoman Linda Greene says HFA decided to clear that area first, partly because it looked easiest—records indicate it was never used for target practice, just barracks and the like—and also because its owner, the D.C. government, hinted that it wanted the plot cleared for a shopping center. (It’s a well-worn hint: A 1985 article on the site quotes then–ANC Commissioner Robert Yeldell as saying, “We’ve been talking about Camp Simms for 10 to 13 years now and still nothing has been done.”)
In addition, the school grounds and the hospital have been declared clean without a surface sweep. Tim Liller, the on-site project engineer, says that since both buildings were constructed in the early 1960s, well after Camp Simms was closed, they are assuming that munitions there already would have been uncovered.
That leaves HFA’s sweep crews stuck on Oxon Run Park, 80 percent of which has yet to be swept. At this rate, the crews will fall short of the Sept. 30 target date for concluding their meticulous stroll through the park. Extra crews have been called in; complaints about the slow pace prompted HFA to replace its original project manager.
According to Jack Green, a lifelong Anacostia community activist, the Camp Simms cleanup would be going nowhere if it weren’t for the pressure from Metro. In Anacostia, Green argues, it’s standard operating procedure for visitors like the Army to come in and make a mess without cleaning up. “This is Anacostia. This is across the bridge. They’re not going to do much here anyhow,” he says.
And National Park Service Resource Manager Jim Rosenstock says that uprooting tons of shells and other debris will take a toll on the park, which he calls one of the city’s “most significant natural areas.” For instance, the park hosts one of only a few magnolia bogs left anywhere in the country. “What’s really special is not any particular plant,” Rosenstock says, “but the plant community…that’s extremely rare and threatened.” He describes “carpets and carpets” of ferns of many varieties, mountain laurel, and unusual wild orchids, including one that is on a federal list of at-risk species.
Rosenstock says that the Oxon Run environment has survived because everybody forgot it was there. Though the park service ran summer camps there during the ’60s and ’70s, and longtime residents remember outdoor movies there, budget cuts have ended those activities along with any thought of turning the park into a recreation area. “It’s kind of ironic,” Rosenstock says. “We can get Metro to spend an extra $30 million to avoid the park [by tunneling under it instead of going right through it], but we can’t come up with an extra $30,000 to develop the park.”
With their picks and shovels and their “engineering controls,” HFA crews can’t help endangering the park’s unique ecosystem. Crew members claim they’re digging more holes than they can count: over a thousand just to get rid of the metal found near the Metro tunnel site. Rosenstock, however, concedes that the damage is unavoidable: “There is no choice,” he says. “It has to be dealt with….We just want it dealt with as sensitively as possible.” Rosenstock is hoping that HFA’s cleanup proceeds smoothly so that cleanups of another sort may begin. “We need to make it safe for Boy Scouts to go in there and clean up the cans,” he says. “And right now it’s not.”—Kathy Jones