Bombs in Our Backyard



The Washington Post - Sunday, March 6, 2005

By Richard Leiby

The nation’s capital is often maligned for resting on a former swamp, but the affluent Northwest neighborhood of Spring Valley—whose residents have included Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush—lays claim to an even more dubious distinction: It sits on a World War I-era chemical weapons dump. A new federal study—with its finding that no "apparent public health hazard" exists—may help allay lingering fears in the neighborhood, but one thing is sure: Ginny Durrin, a Spring Valley filmmaker, is going to continue toiling on a documentary she calls "Bombs in Our Backyard."

She has been at it since 1993, when a backhoe operator unearthed mortar rounds. "I called a cameraman friend of mine over because I had a hunch: This was the beginning of our own weapons of mass destruction program, right here in D.C.," she says.

Of course WMD wasn’t a buzzword back then, or in 1917, when the United States entered the war and the Army started experimenting with at least 48 forms of poison gas on the then-rural campus area of American University. Since the discovery of the weapons dump, residents have complained of illnesses they suspect are connected to toxins in the soil. Last year tests confirmed groundwater contamination.

Spring Valley is home today to such notables as Tim Russert, Ann Compton and Jim Vance. "It’s a great neighborhood," says Richard Carlson, a former ambassador who, with wife Patricia, rented a home there last September that they’re thinking of buying. "I drink the tap water myself and I feel perfectly healthy, and I am surrounded by healthy-looking people."

A voluminous report last month by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry concluded, after a dozen years of investigation, that "most people in Spring Valley have not and will not experience adverse health effects." But, as Durrin tells us, "the story isn’t quite finished yet." The feds, who are soliciting public comment on their findings through March 29, pointed out that the buried waste "could pose a chemical or physical hazard if disturbed."

Durrin, 63, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her 1980s doc on the late D.C. homeless activist Mitch Snyder, has interviewed neighbors, government officials, Spring Valley expats and newcomers, contrasting ethical and environmental concerns with ever-escalating real estate prices. "Sometimes I see myself as an activist," she says. "But for the most part, I try to just sit back and record."

Is the end in sight? Durrin optimistically suggests a 2006 release for her movie, but says she’ll only stop recording when "the end feels right."