Cheney's Home Sending Bad Vibrations
Construction Blasts Have D.C. Folks Shuddering, Speculating
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 8, 2002; Page A01
One man thought the noise was a sonic boom.
Another guessed he was hearing rolling thunder.
When a woman feared it was a bomb or an earthquake, she called the police. But they had no answers, either.
No one in the Massachusetts Avenue Heights neighborhood of Northwest Washington knows what is going on at the house of their neighbor, the vice president of the United States.
But one thing is certain: They're tired of the daily blasting at the Naval Observatory that has shaken houses, rattled windows and knocked mirrors off the walls.
"None of the neighbors object to any construction that is necessary in the Navy's view," said Nancy Nord, a community activist who lives on Observatory Circle. "What we do object to is that there is no sense of the magnitude, no warning about something so intrusive to our lives and no clear sense how long this is going to go or when it's going to stop."
The blasts, which last three to five seconds apiece, have been going off two or three times a day -- as early as 7 a.m. and as late as 11 p.m. -- for nearly two months, residents say. But neighbors have received so little information from government officials about the top-secret project that speculation is running wild.
The leading theory: A security bunker is being built for Vice President Cheney. The second most-popular guess: The government is digging tunnels to spy on nearby embassies. In third place: A helicopter hangar is under construction.
As the government roots out terrorists around the globe and gears up for a possible military confrontation with Iraq, nothing is out of the realm of possibility, neighbors say.
"After 9/11, when you hear a big blast for the first time, you wonder what is going on," said Iza Warner, who had a mirror fall off the wall of her home on Davis Street, a few blocks away from the construction site. Warner called the police after guests at a dinner party became frightened by the racket.
"One guest said, 'Oh, my God, what is going on -- an earthquake?' " Warner recalled. "She said it sounded just awful. I called the police, and they looked around but they couldn't tell us anything."
Thus far, the federal government's only response to the residents has been a three-page letter that the observatory's superintendent, David W. Gillard, sent to the advisory neighborhood commissioner, Rosalyn P. Doggett, on Nov. 20.
The blasting could last eight more months, Gillard said in the letter, but the Navy has attempted to limit noise by silencing backup alerts on trucks and removing most diesel-powered electric generators from the construction site.
He did not disclose the nature of the project, however.
"Due to its sensitive nature in support of national security and homeland defense, project specific information is classified and cannot be released," Gillard wrote. "In addition, please understand we are severely constrained by operation requirements to perform this project on a highly accelerated schedule; therefore, it will not be possible to limit construction activities to the daytime as you request."
Doggett said the letter raised as many questions as it answered. "I got back an information sheet that I thought was just not pertinent," she said. "They do not have to tell us exactly what is happening, but they do need to minimize the impact."
The matter has alarmed D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who said she has asked Deputy Mayor Margret Nedelkoff Kellems to press White House officials to work out a resolution.
"If the federal government is not being a good neighbor, we'll elevate the issue to a level where something can be done," Patterson said. "We want to know what we can know about what they're up to and if they are able to be a bit more responsive."
The Naval Observatory, which opened at 3450 Massachusetts Ave. in 1893, houses many of the Navy's precious instruments used for measuring time and astronomy. The house on its grounds was designated as the vice president's residence in 1974.
If residents' speculation is accurate and construction workers are digging deep into the ground, the project would be going through about 35 feet of common sand and gravel, according to federal officials at the U.S. Geological Survey. Anything beyond that depth would hit tonalite, an intrusive igneous rock similar to granite and common to this area.
Phyllis Bonanno said her 89-year-old mother, who lives with her on Observatory Circle, is "quite upset when the boom goes off."
"Everybody appreciates that there's always national security issues," Bonanno said. "On the other hand, this is a neighborhood. We're owed the courtesy of an explanation."
To Davis Street resident Joe Rieser, the noise is "quite remarkable. It's like thunder -- it rolls. The windows rattle. It's not something I'm used to. I'm concerned whether there are cracks in my house."
Navy spokeswoman Cate Mueller described the work as "infrastructure and utility upgrades." She said that officials are continually monitoring the project and have not discovered any physical damage to buildings on observatory grounds. The vibrations from the blasts are below regulatory standards for construction in the city, she added.
"If people came to us with damage, we would work with them on the claim," Mueller said. "Some neighbors are concerned. We take that seriously. We're doing what we can to make things better."
Longtime residents said they have never heard such sounds coming from the Naval Observatory. Because they live in the nation's capital, however, many say they are resigned to living in a secretive world.
"Yeah, I'd like to know more," said Carol Hindle, who lives on Davis Street. "But I do not trust that what I hear would be the whole truth. This is Washington, after all."
And because it's Washington, the situation also is laced with political humor.
"I just got back from Connecticut," said Warner. "When I mentioned this to my nephew, he said maybe [Cheney] is drilling for oil."