We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Officials at the Naval Security Station keep a pretty tight lid on what transpires inside their complex of brick buildings at the corner of Massachusetts and Nebraska Avenues NW. The station teems with security and bears few signs identifying itself to the thousands of locals who pass it each day.
But in recent weeks, residents of the Northwest neighborhood of Glover Park have learned one of the station’s secrets: During the 1950s and ’60s, it poured oodles of PCB-contaminated oil down its drains. Over the years, the noxious oil has snaked its way through the sewer system and into their back yards. Now the residents, the Navy, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are trying to figure out how to dig out from an intractable environmental mess.
Navy officials first discovered the contaminated oil at the station in 1988 when they cleaned out the station’s drainage system. A repair crew broke up a storm grate, and, in the words of Heath Wells, the station’s environmental officer, “This black goopy stuff came out of it.” The Navy immediately cleared all the contaminated oil from around the grate, says Wells. But that’s as far as it went—nobody followed up to see if the contamination had spread beyond the grate and beyond the station’s property via streams and sewer pipes.
It had. The Navy has located two seriously contaminated spots in Glover Archibald Park, a federally maintained enclave of hiking trails that begins near the station and goes all the way through Georgetown to the Potomac River.
The more toxic of the sites, says Wells, hosts PCB concentrations 100 times greater than the allowable limit in residential areas and 500 times the concentrations that allow the toxins to enter the food chain. The contamination is spread over an area about the size of a two-car garage.
Although the site is small and isolated, it sits near the junction of Foundry Branch and other streams, which have apparently picked up PCB-laden sediment during floods and carried them downstream. “Where we the Navy are concerned is that these sediments have already moved from the [drains] into the main part of the stream; they will continue to move down to the Potomac, and we don’t want that to happen,” says Wells.
The Navy has decided to clean up the two toxic waste sites in Glover Park, a decision that may cause more turmoil than the PCBs themselves. For one thing, nobody knew about the poisons in the park until the Navy itself started poking around: The spills were discovered as part of a campaign to find and restore toxic waste sites at naval bases across the country, not because of any indigenous pressure from neighbors. Now that the Navy has convened a Restoration Advisory Board with local citizens, word of cancer-causing chemicals in the park is getting out, and people who live on Glover Park’s borders are demanding tests to see if the station’s runoff has contaminated their property.
Tests cost about $1,500 a pop and could easily exhaust the $2.5-million cleanup budget if the Navy fulfilled every request. And even if the tests turn up contaminated soil, the Navy is not necessarily to blame: The park’s other neighbors could also have spread contaminants through the neighborhood.
“We do live in these cities and we’ve used them heavily for a hundred years. So it’s not uncommon to find any number of chemicals at low levels at any site,” says Mark Stephens, EPA’s point man for the Glover Park cleanup.
By limiting the testing to the areas that drain off the station, Wells is trying to limit the Navy’s liability and avoid the public relations fiasco of telling someone, “Yes, you have carcinogens behind your house, but no, the Navy’s not going to remove them.”
The Navy’s cleanup at the two contaminated sites it has already found will cost a bundle, take a long time, and cause serious hassles in the neighborhood and in the 200-acre urban forest that surrounds it. Work is scheduled to begin in September and should take about a year, according to Navy officials.
Even though the Navy is paying for the cleanup, it must get permits from the National Park Service because Glover Archibald Park is owned by the feds and administered through Rock Creek Park. Bob Ford, resources manager for Rock Creek Park, says the Navy’s timetable for cleanup is unrealistic. “The concern we’ve had is that there’s a very ambitious schedule,” says Ford. “We certainly don’t want to hold things up, but we don’t want to rush so that some bad decisions are made. We don’t even have a complete set of plans yet.” Ford believes the Navy has compressed the cleanup schedule so that it can foot the bill with funds from this year’s budget.
One reason Ford hasn’t seen any plans is that the Navy hasn’t settled on any. The Navy brass at this point is leaning toward the traditional “dig-and-haul” cleanup method, which would wreak as much environmental havoc as a new sports complex: Crews would have to uproot an area the size of a baseball field, bulldoze 269 mature trees, reroute hiking trails, and blaze a new trail from Massachusetts Avenue to allow access for heavy equipment. All the hubbub will enable noisy dump trucks to make more than 200 trips over the the neighborhood’s pothole-ridden byways to replace the contaminated soil. Northwest NIMBYs will no doubt go berserk.
Wells recognizes that the plan lacks elegance from a neighborhood perspective. “We don’t like the idea necessarily of trucking contaminated soil out to the Beltway, there onto wherever.” (“Wherever” is probably Texas, the home of a huge toxic waste dump and an incinerator that are designed for PCB-contaminated soil.)
If community protests quash the dig-and-haul proposal, the Navy could try to treat the soil on-site with huge metal boxes—essentially scrubbers—that extract the PCBs from the dirt a few tons at a time. Developed by the Department of Energy, the on-site approach is still experimental for smaller cleanups, but the department says it has used the method successfully at some of its larger toxic waste sites. It’ll be noisy, it’ll be dusty, and it’ll take longer than the traditional method, but it will keep toxic trucks out of the neighborhood.
Then there’s nature’s solution: bioremediation—or mixing the soil with PCB-eating bacteria and then leaving it alone until the little bugs have done their work. Bioremediation, however, is even more experimental than on-site treatment, because nobody knows just how long it will take for the PCBs to be digested or whether the bacteria can get them all. At any rate, the approach would still require clear-cutting the sites in question and keeping the contaminated soil moist at all times. Wells says the Navy has pretty much eliminated bioremediation from the list of treatment possibilities, even though some community activists want more information about it.
Surprisingly, nobody in Glover Park is talking much about the fourth option: fencing the toxic sites off and forgetting about them. After all, it’s not like PCBs are radioactive. In fact, PCBs have only been proved to cause cancer in lab rats, not in people. And the only way PCBs can harm humans is if they’re ingested, inhaled, or eaten.
There are no reported incidents of Glover Park residents grazing on neighborhood pastures, but Wells says there’s still a risk: “People eat dirt by accident a lot. If you go to the park and you were to, say, play in the dirt, like children do, and then you went home, and you didn’t wash your hands, then you pick up a sandwich, you eat the sandwich, you eat the dirt.”
While it may take a lot of dirty sandwiches to get sick from Glover Park PCBs, there is a consensus among environmentalists that leaving PCBs in the soil creates a poisonous link in the local food chain. Rock Creek’s Ford shares their concerns: “You would have a source of PCBs working its way through the park and into the Potomac. Just to let it go on for decades or centuries doesn’t make sense to me because the forest can be restored,” Ford says.
The D.C. health department has already found high levels of PCB contamination in fish plucked from the Potomac, and a report by the Interstate Commission on the Potomac revealed dangerously high PCB levels in silt deposited by runoff from all over the city.
Given the stakes involved, the debate over how to remediate past mistakes at the Naval Security Station may be almost as enduring as the PCBs buried near Glover Park.