Representatives of the U.S. Army on July 23 offered a compromise proposal for an area near a neighborhood trail in Silver Spring where syringes, scalpels and other medical waste were found two years ago.
The Army and residents have been grappling with what to do about the waste since it was unearthed in 2012. It was found along the Ireland Drive Trail, near the Army’s Forest Glen annex, just south of the Beltway and west of Georgia Avenue. The area also is near the U.S. National Museum of Health and Medicine.
The latest proposal involves installing about 2,450 feet of chain-link fencing around the part officials believe is contaminated, including the wooded western portion and the upper part of Ireland Creek. That still would give residents access to 70 percent of the trail and portions of Ireland Creek and would cost almost $400,000, officials said.
Other alternatives derived by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a detailed report ranged from posting signs, for about $11,000, to removing contaminants, for as much as $3.1 million.
“This is only a proposal,” said Nick Minecci, a spokesman for Fort Detrick, which controls the Forest Glen annex, which houses the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and some other biomedical research centers. “A final decision has not been made.”
Medical waste may have originated from a landfill on the annex, where waste was dumped during and after World War II.
The trail was used in the 18th century to transport tobacco downhill to Rock Creek and ultimately England. It was paved in the early 20th century for use by the National Park Seminary girls’ boarding school.
The Army acquired the trail and woodlands during World War II, when it used the buildings to treat wounded soldiers.
Several residents who have used the trail for years said they doubted the contamination posed a serious health threat, especially to those who only use the trail and don’t go near the creek. They noted that Lake Needwood in Rockville has signs warning visitors that there are contaminants in the water, but officials don’t close the lake to recreational activities.
While residents applauded Army officials for coming up with a compromise proposal, some supported the less-costly proposal to only post warning signs.
“There is no such thing as a temporary fence,” said Barbara Schubert, an area resident who founded a preservation group called Save Our Ireland Trail. “The chain-link fence would be topped by barbed wire. Can you imagine that next to this natural trail?”
Agencies have yet to do a detailed risk assessment to show what exactly would be dangerous to humans, she said. Civilian members on the area’s Restoration Advisory Board studied data for two years and did not support a fence, Schubert said.
Army contractors have measured the potential health risk of exposure to arsenic, radium and other chemicals buried in the woods. One dioxin in the stream was measured at a level nine times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s benchmark level, prompting some signs to warn people to not allow pets to drink from the stream.
Donald Hall of Silver Spring, a retired Army colonel who co-chairs the Restoration Advisory Board, said he also supported the warning sign option for now. The state of Maryland will conduct its own health assessment review and could impose other measures, he said.
“It would be best to wait to see what the state finds before spending money to put up a fence,” Hall said.
More than 50 people attended the open house-format meeting at Coffield Community Recreation Center.
Some residents said they wanted protections from contaminated areas.
Nearby resident Diana Rodum said she supported a different option, costing about $500,000, that would include a fence, but allow access to all of the trail and creek. “We use the trail, but we don’t go down by the creek,” she said.
A 45-day public comment period runs through Aug. 11 and likely will be extended as many people are on vacation, Minecci said. Written comments can be emailed to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Baltimore District, at Russell.E.Marsh@usace.army.mil by Aug. 11.