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15-Year Cleanup at David Taylor Draws to Close

Advisory Boards have overseen removal of historic contamination at 22 sites.

Andrew Gutberlet is getting good at getting the lead out. And the PCBs and trace metals and chemical residues.

Gutberlet is the project manager for Naval Facilities Engineering Command who has for the last five years overseen the cleanup efforts at the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division, formerly known as the David Taylor Model Basin.

NavSurf may be Potomac’s most mysterious site. The well-secured research center is generally closed to the public and rarely in the news. Most residents, including those who drive past the installation daily on the Clara Barton Parkway, know little of what happens in the center's long hangar-like buildings, much less of the complex history behind the Navy-mandated investigation and cleanup of contaminated sites throughout the base.

That history dates back to before 1991, but began anew in 2001 and was slated to last 15 years. Less than five years later, the efforts are drawing to a close, causing some to point to NavSurf’s cleanup as a model for other sites nationwide. By summer, the NavSurf Carderock site is expected to be free of contaminants.

"Everything gets tied up with weather and contracts and everything like that, but our goal now is to have all the actual work done before this coming summer," said Bill Spicer of the Naval District Washington, which oversees and operates the base. "There'll be another six months after that of cleaning up the paperwork with the state and the EPA and everything."

The Installation Restoration program was established in the late 1980s by the Department of the Navy to comply with the requirements of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act of 1980 and the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act of 1986. The purpose of the “restoration” program is to identify, assess, and cleanup or control releases from past hazardous waste disposal operations and hazardous material spills.

In 1991 NavSurf Carderock (then David Taylor) conducted a preliminary assessment and identified nine sites that were contaminated or likely contaminated based on historical records and sampling.

The cleanup effort called for the establishment of a Technical Review Committee comprising Navy representatives and community members to assess and make recommendations on the work. This committee was later converted into a Restoration Advisory Board, with the same purpose. The first Restoration Advisory Board served through 1995.

During that time, the Navy conducted significant cleanups at many of the nine sites, culminating in the complete removal of the polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)-contaminated scrap yard, identified as site three, according Spicer, a Restoration Advisory Board co-chair.

Then the work stopped. The Restoration Advisory Board disbanded and for six years, the base resumed normal operations.

“No one was concerned that nothing was happening,” Gutberlet said. “On the scale of contaminated bases, this is about as close to the bottom as you can get. It is a really minor base, there’s not a lot of contamination. There was not manufacture of weapons here like at Indian Head, there was no testing of weapons here like at Dahlgren, it’s not even a training facility like Quantico. It’s a research facility.”

But 2001 brought renewed calls for cleanup, a new investigation and, soon, a new Restoration Advisory Board.

Ten years after the first search for contaminants at the base, Naval Facilities Command staff went back to the nine trouble spots to review the situation.

“In the process we found 42 new ones, that clearly were issues, like the sewage treatment plant that used to be here, like a pistol range in one of the buildings,” that caused lead contamination, Gutberlet said. “We found all these other sites. So we started running two parallel sets of cleanups. One is the old nine sites and we would go through the cleanup process with them,” and the other was an initial investigation into the 42 new trouble spots.

Gutberlet and Maryland Department of the Environment’s Curtis DeTore noted that the 42 newly identified sites were red flags — sites that might be problems based on suspicion or reported information. Twenty-nine of the 42 sites were dismissed after a preliminary inquiry.

“It was 13 that needed further investigation. The rest of those 42, we looked at historical records and said, ‘There’s nothing here’ or sampled them and said, ‘We don’t need to address these at all,’ and the remaining ones we numbered starting at 10,” Gutberlet said.

THE CURRENT Restoration Advisory Board met for the 12th time Jan. 18. Nearly all of the 42 newly identified sites have been cleaned up completely, through creative and sometimes bizarre methods.

An underground pistol range in one of the base’s buildings left now-buried soil contaminated with lead dust. The solution was giant vacuum cleaner — an industrial strength suction tube run more than 100 feet to the site from a truck serving as its generator. The lead-contaminated soil was the only Environmental Protection Agency-defined hazardous material to leave the site, and went in a sealed container to Michigan to be processed.

The process has been monitored closely by the Maryland Department of the Environment, which has kept reams of documentation including confirmatory soil and water samples on all of the sites. The cleanup process has also been monitored by outside agencies like NavSurf neighbor the National Park Service and by the community at large via the Restoration Advisory Board.

What remains is the last of the work on the oldest sites of all — site one, the landfill, and site two, the storage yard.

The contents of the landfill are being shipped out one truckload at a time. That effort is the reason for the lane closures on the westbound Clara Barton Parkway and the temporary stop sign at the end of the ramp from the outer loop of the beltway.

The truck traffic has gone in spurts — with only a few departing on some days and as many as 30 on other days. In total, between 300 and 400 truckloads of material have left the base, Spicer estimated. The landfill material is delivered to working landfills in other counties where it is used as daily cover. The eight-foot deep site will be restored as a wetland.

“Before any of the construction started happening, if you went out there it was kind of a little swampy anyway,” DeTore said.

“By not backfilling our excavation, we’re just going to turn it into a wetland. The benefit of the base is that that’s a floodplain anyway coming off of Rock Run. They’re not allowed to build in it regardless so the base figured this is a better use of this area,” said Gutberlet.

The cleanup organizers hope to involve the larger community in one of the final and celebratory phases of the restoration by inviting a school or Boy Scout group to participate in planting greenery in the new wetland.

Work on the former storage yard site is drawing to a close as well. Officials removed about one foot of contaminated surface soil covering the site. After retesting, they still found some contamination and are returning to remove another six inches.

Also being tracked are contaminant levels at storm drain outfalls between the C&O Canal and the Potomac that trace back to former laboratories and other sites on base. Testing revealed an ecological — but not human — risk.

ALL OF THE CLEANUPS have been conducted with an eye to finishing with a site free of Department of the Environment-imposed land use restrictions. The benchmark used by advisory board members is the ability to build a daycare center on any of the sites.

"Essentially [children] could be playing in the area and not having increased health risk," Spicer said.

The future of the NavSurf Carderock site is unclear. Some have suggested that the engineering done at the site is archaic — now done more efficiently by computers — and that the site may some day become a housing development.

But officials say that the work done at Carderock is still critical and, with major renovations at the base just getting underway, it seems unlikely to be going anywhere anytime soon.