Search for Mysterious Fumes Dominates Walter Reed Community Meeting

Fox 5 Reporter Lauren DeMarco reports on last night’s meeting

Walter Reed Progress Report

The Walter Reed Community Advisory Committee held it’s February meeting on Monday night at the DC International School on Aspen Street NW.  Development principal Caroline Kinney walked the audience through the progress report. Most of the items she shared were not new, so I’ll just outline them briefly:

  • Demolition of existing buildings is going well and the 70’s era Hospital Building 2 is almost gone.
  • The application process for the 80 units of affordable senior housing at Abrams Hall will begin in about two months.
  • The excavation for buildings VU at the corner of Aspen and Georgia.  Excavation will continue through the summer, with the work on the buildings scheduled for completion in December of 2020.
  • The U.S. Army will complete soil remediation at Building 15 around May.

Mysterious Fumes Baffle Experts and Neighbors

It was the noxious fumes, however, that drew the capacity crowd to this meeting. For the past ten days or so, a powerful odor has invaded the neighborhood just south of Walter Reed site.  The smell is said to resemble diesel fuel or chemicals.  It has seemed to be strongest in the late night hours.  This situation has given the nearby neighbors serious concerns about the quality of the air that they breathe and they want answers, now.

Initial Report

Katie Wiacek from the development team provided the results of the initial investigation.  Their contracted environmental experts and inspectors from the city’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) have been on site measuring air quality and searching for the source of the odor.  So far, the investigation has ruled out the following potential sources:

  • Ongoing construction equipment and activity does not appear to be a source since  the smell is most notable late at night when no work is being done.
  • They considered whether environmental issues (from digging up two underground storage tanks) could be causing the odors, but those tanks were removed last fall, with DOEE providing the proper closeout certification at the time.
  • There is a temporary boiler unit that is being used to heat the DCI School facility.  The boiler uses diesel fuel and would be a good suspect.  The environmental contractor performed overnight testing all around the DCI school and found that all air quality results were normal.  Additionally, a combustion test was performed on the heating equipment itself, which showed that the unit was operating at high efficiency and would not likely be the source of the smell.

Based on results of observations to date, the development team believes that the source of the odor is not on the Walter Reed campus.

Response from the City

Richard Jackson, the Deputy Director for DOEE who oversees the Air Quality division, was there to put the results of the current testing into context.  He explained that city inspectors had been on site several times since they were first notified last Sunday.  As of last night, they had not been able to track down the source of the smell.

Questions from the Neighbors

The first response during the Question and Answer period came from Mr. Kelly Duland from Whittier Street who walks the block in front of the school just about every day.   During his walks he and his partner have noticed the temporary heating plant spewing emissions.  The emissions were so strong that they changed their exercise pattern to avoid it.  His conclusion is that the combustion process of that unit is broken and is likely the cause of the problem.

Mr. Jackson responded that DOEE had not received reports of the heating malfunctioning during afternoon hours, but that they would look into it.

Ms. Hawkins from Aspen Street described toll the issue is having on her family:

The odor is so horrendous. It is literally waking us up in the middle of the night. We have been emailing [the developer] at 1:00 AM in the morning; our eyes are burning, the smell is getting in our homes and now in our furniture and everything else. It’s been going on probably for three weeks now.

Neighbors on the Case

The mysterious nature of the problem is fertile ground for speculation and rumor.  Some neighbors have been doing their own internet sleuthing and they produced “classified” documents they thought might point to leftover piping or nuclear medical waste from the U. S. Army’s time on the base.

Randall Clarke, the Director of the Walter Reed Local Redevelopment Authority, calmly pointed out that the Army had conducted a clean up of their material and is responsible for managing a remaining area located near Building 15 on the State Department parcel. He also stated that any hazardous material had to be removed before the demolition of any structure could take place. There have been 120 soil core samples taken during the site preparation phase to investigate potential contamination sources.

A neighbor from Tewksbury Street (several blocks away from WR) said, “I wake up in the middle of the night coughing, my throat is burning and I have a headache.  My question is, what do you recommend for those of us with health concerns?”

Boiling Frustrations

One final neighbor summarized the frustrations of the neighbors succinctly:

Is there one city agency that is responsible for addressing an issue like this? We’re hearing from an assortment of people with an assortment of backgrounds with an assortment of levels of expertise. Is there a city agency with a level of expertise or knowledge and responsibility to look at this issue. We shouldn’t have to have [a member of CAC] telling us (about wind directions), you people are supposed to be doing that! Isn’t that your job? Isn’t that what we pay taxes for? I am appalled that we’re taking applications for people to go to the moon and you can’t even figure out what to do about this issue. I am appalled!

Bottom Line

As of this writing, the odors still remain a problem that needs to be solved.  The experts and neighbors all want to solve it as quickly as possible, but the fleeting nature of the smell and the changing wind direction is making it very difficult to track down.

There is a very real possibility that the smell is coming from somewhere off of campus. There is even speculation that illegal drug production activity could be the source.

The developer and city officials seem committed to finding the answer.  Unfortunately, the neighbors’ patience is wearing thin.


News 4’s Chris Gordon reported on this issue last week.

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