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The toxic environment in Washington DC
May 21, 2010 10:50 AM   Subscribe

Hundreds of munitions and beakers with vintage chemical weapons, including "butter of arsenic" and lewisite, the "dew of death," are being dug up in Washington DC -- less than five miles from the White House (around American University).

The chemicals date to WWI, during which chemical weapons resulted in a million casualties and about 26,000 deaths. This area, Spring Valley, is home to Diane Feinstein and AG Eric Holder. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George HW Bush all lived there before entering the White House.
posted by msalt (32 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
A phrase I never thought I'd see: "Vintage chemical weapons."
posted by ZenMasterThis at 10:56 AM on May 21, 2010 [4 favorites]


We found the WMDs!!
posted by battlebison at 10:59 AM on May 21, 2010 [28 favorites]


Today on Antiques Roadshow, Butter of Arsenic and Dew of Death!
posted by happyroach at 11:12 AM on May 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Ah, memories. I went to law school at American, and went to events on the main campus pretty often. The McKinley Building has a very nice plaque memorializing the good work of the US Army Corps of Engineer's First Gas Brigade, which was equipped and trained at AU.

Every now and then, we used to get emails assuring us, in tones of absolute sincerity, that the weapons recovery work posed absolutely no risk to students. None whatsoever.

It's a lovely neighborhood, though - I've often heard it described as America's most exclusive superfund site. (Note: I don't know if it is, in fact, technically a superfund site).
posted by Mr. Excellent at 11:14 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Hey, look! The US government does know how to deal with man-made toxic environmental problems. Maybe someday they will do something about the Gulf Of Mexico.
posted by hippybear at 11:14 AM on May 21, 2010


I cast Butter of Arsenic at the bugbear. (Dew of Death is a level 3 spell.)
posted by benzenedream at 11:16 AM on May 21, 2010 [10 favorites]


The yard that causes the most concern is between the official residence of South Korea's ambassador, Han Duk-soo, and the white-columned house of American University's president, Cornelius Kerwin. Previous digs unearthed more than 300 munitions and chemical weapons debris on the South Korean property and toxic chemicals beside the AU house.

I am seeing this paragraph become a poorly translated "US gives WMDs to South Korea" headline.
posted by mrzarquon at 11:18 AM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Nothing new here. They were digging up gas shells in continually in the backyards of Spring Valley mansions in the 1980s and 1990s.
posted by killdevil at 11:18 AM on May 21, 2010


> Maybe someday they will do something about the Gulf Of Mexico.

Unfortunately, they don't really have as good a track record of deep sea cleanup.
posted by mrzarquon at 11:20 AM on May 21, 2010


Perfect. We can use these to plug the hole in the bottom of the Gulf.
posted by schmod at 11:24 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Holy crap!
posted by caddis at 11:34 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


It happens not to be the area where weapons of mass destruction were dispersed. We know where they are. They’re in the area around the White House and north and northwest somewhat.
posted by Babblesort at 11:37 AM on May 21, 2010


For more information on naval dumping (and the cleanup operations), this article is fairly detailed. Worth mentioning, mustard gas (which is in a solid in the munitions), isn't very soluble, so it forms dense pools of toxic sludge around the containers, so even if the containers themselves don't get pulled up in a fisherman's net, the sludge on the lines can inflict serious damage as well.
posted by mrzarquon at 11:38 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, I'll just put this on my list of reasons when some smart-aleck asks me why I quit being an archaeologist.

Number 1 is the whole not being paid thing, but deadly weapons - now number 2.
posted by cobaltnine at 11:42 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


I saw this movie; it ends up with a mindless infected horde laying siege to the White House and a motley assortment of rag-tag survivors inside trying to stay alive as the toxin spreads and the world burns.

Wait, was that a movie or does my head just construct these scenarios on the fly now?
posted by quin at 11:43 AM on May 21, 2010 [5 favorites]


Spring Valley is, in fact, a Superfund site. Army Corps of Engineers work is ongoing and currently scheduled to be completed by 2011.
posted by valkyryn at 11:48 AM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Unlike mercury or asbestos they knew exactly how nasty these chemicals were when they made the decision to just bury them in the ground. Because "no one would live here, it's the middle of nowhere!"
posted by tommasz at 11:53 AM on May 21, 2010


> Unlike mercury or asbestos they knew exactly how nasty these chemicals were when they made the decision to just bury them in the ground. Because "no one would live here, it's the middle of nowhere!"

Well, that and there was no clear way to know how to dispose of them safely them. They were designing weapons, that were supposed to be 'deposited' on someone elses soil. They had little information on the way to truely transport and dispose of the stuff, and post war / combat, there is little incentive to spend time or energy on those issues, since the War is Won.

That is pretty much what happened with Hanford. They built the bomb, because they had to, and safety and disposal of the chemicals would be handled just after they made sure they weren't nuked first.
posted by mrzarquon at 11:58 AM on May 21, 2010


> Spring Valley is, in fact, a Superfund site.

One of my favorite pieces of street art south of Seattle downtown:

I Love Georgetown, It's Superfund!!
posted by mrzarquon at 12:00 PM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


I Love Georgetown, It's Superfund!!

In Brooklyn: Gowanu Canal Super Fun Super Fund
posted by griphus at 12:02 PM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


It's only a matter of time before all this digging breaks into the giant ants' hive.
posted by kowalski at 12:08 PM on May 21, 2010


Down in Hell, Saddam is laughing.
posted by Skeptic at 12:09 PM on May 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Only tangentially related, but chemistry was so much cooler when everything was flower of zinc this and acid of aerial that.
posted by drezdn at 12:18 PM on May 21, 2010


'Vintage' chemical weapons? Great, just wait until the hipsters get a hold of this stuff.

something something joke about artisanal mustard gas and single-origin organic butter of arsenic
posted by a young man in spats at 12:45 PM on May 21, 2010 [3 favorites]


Vintage chemical weapons...

I can only imagine a Sotheby's auction with Dr. Evil bidding against Boris Badenov for these "rare" vintage chemical weapons.
posted by ericb at 1:56 PM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


Great, just wait until the hipsters get a hold of this stuff.

posted by a young man in spats...


Eponysterical!
posted by ericb at 1:57 PM on May 21, 2010


Did you hear the one about the hipster who ordered artisanal mustard gas and single-origin organic butter of arsenic?

No? Me neither, as my auditory system is failing due to nerve damage caused by severe chemical burns.
posted by lalochezia at 1:59 PM on May 21, 2010 [9 favorites]


Maybe someday they will do something about the Gulf Of Mexico.

If you look at maritime navigational maps, you'll see a large, state-sized, irregular polygon located South East of the oil leak, marked "munitions disposal zone."
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:12 PM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


"Unlike mercury or asbestos they knew exactly how nasty these chemicals were when they made the decision to just bury them in the ground. Because "no one would live here, it's the middle of nowhere!""

Or out here by the reservoir... They were just looking for any old place to stuff their toxic junk, like kids putting dirty socks under the couch cushions. Meanwhile, that developer buys up "Death Valley" from the government, renames it Spring Valley and happily starts selling houses to the rich. The hypocrisy reaches Mayor Quimby proportions.
posted by Kevin Street at 2:31 PM on May 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


After the war, soldiers and scientists buried lethal leftovers in unmarked pits, calling the area Death Valley.

A developer renamed it Spring Valley, and mansions sprouted.


Yeah, this is why that whole "let developers develop" without regulation thing is not a good idea.
posted by davejay at 2:44 PM on May 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


Am I the only one who read that as lewistate?
posted by Horace Rumpole at 5:11 PM on May 21, 2010


Geez you'd think the secret service would keep tabs on that or something!
posted by zcode7 at 11:07 PM on May 21, 2010


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