Digging Up Old Toxins

Article excerpt

Army soldiers will soon carefully, manually dig up the South Korean ambassador's back yard in Northwest, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers believes they will find several 80-year-old canisters of mustard gas or other agents of chemical warfare.

The corps believes it may have missed the canisters in a sweep of the Spring Valley neighborhood in 1993.

Mustard gas is an oily liquid used in warfare as poison because it causes blistering and irritation. During World War I, 400,000 casualties resulted from exposure to mustard gas.

Ambassador Lee Hong-koo's lush courtyard behind the home in the 4800 block of Glenbrook Road may have been the burial ground for 15 to 20 canisters of the gas, stored in ceramic jugs and buried there in 1918.

Now the neighborhood is dotted with million-dollar homes and resplendent gardens and has been home to presidents, senators and celebrities.

A man digging a trench for a new house in 1993 unearthed 141 old artillery shells containing mustard gas.

Within hours, the neighborhood was crawling with soldiers, and the silence was broken by the thump of military helicopters overhead. Police evacuated "hot zones."

Army specialists spent three weeks gingerly removing the shells.

Eighty years ago, 100,000 troops trained for chemical warfare at the site, then farmland. The gas was tested on animals.

There is a 1918 photograph of a soldier wearing a gas mask at the site that carries a caption: "The Pit, the most feared and respected place on the Grounds."

"The bottles are full of mustard, to be destroyed here. In Death Valley. The hole called Hades."

Early in the century, burying leftover munitions was a common practice.

Now, two soldiers wearing protective suits will begin digging later this month inside a steel, igloo-shaped "Vapor Containment Structure." A 70-foot crane waits in the wings to move the structure when they're finished. …