View Full Version : WWII Leaves Danger Zones

09-15-03, 09:06 AM
WWII Leaves Danger Zones
By BRAD SMITH and NEIL JOHNSON The Tampa Tribune
Published: Sep 14, 2003

TAMPA - Although the last battle of a declared war fought on the U.S. mainland ended 138 years ago, unexploded bombs, rockets, shells, grenades, mines and chemical weapons today pollute acreage the size of Florida.
Unleashed largely during World War II training, this toxic and potentially deadly legacy haunts dozens of military bases and gunnery ranges abandoned before and after the Cold War ended in 1991.

Many of these buried or lost weapons pose threats across the state where remote tracts once used for war games now are earmarked for houses, swimming pools, parks and schools.

Training sites ``were usually established in the middle of nowhere, and now there is no middle of nowhere,'' said Amiee Houghton, associate director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, a watchdog group based in Washington that monitors the cleanup of unexploded ordnance.

``There are probably munitions in every single congressional district in the country.''

But Tampa Bay area residents often need to look no farther than their most familiar landmarks.

Tampa International Airport, once a World War II airstrip called Drew Field, is on the federal government's latest list of possible munitions dumps.

``That's certainly news to us,'' TIA spokeswoman Christine Osborn said. ``We know where Drew Field was. ... We can still see some little traces and slabs of concrete here and there.''

But Robert Bridgers, defense environmental restoration program manager for the Army Corps of Engineers in Jacksonville, said old chemical warfare poisons might still be buried under 2 feet of concrete that forms the airport tarmac.

Nothing is expected to be done about that, though in other places toxicants from deteriorating buried weapons are known to be seeping into the aquifer, a source of drinking water.

In the mid-1990s, Army engineers removed underground storage tanks the military abandoned at TIA. They were close to the airport's old passenger terminal. The Corps continues with ``limited follow-up investigation'' to satisfy the Florida Department of nvironmental Protection.

``We don't expect there's any major contamination on the property,'' Bridgers said. ``But we've got to go through the process again with monitoring wells and doing samples. We've got that, for now, in the category of `No Department of Defense action needed.' ''

Beachfront Rockets

In Pinellas County, the exclusive beachfront community of Belleair Shore once was a rocket range where fighter pilots from Drew Field or MacDill Air Force Base flew bull's- eye practice.

Unexploded 2-inch-diameter rockets wash up occasionally along Gulf Boulevard.

Bridgers said the site was thoroughly examined with metal detectors in the mid- 1990s. The Department of Defense concluded no further cleanup was needed.

``We've advised the community to be aware that if ordnance was found in that area, then that was the real thing and do not disturb it and call 911,'' Bridgers said.

``After significant storm events in the Gulf, there's a possibility those rockets will wash out on the beach. It doesn't happen as often now. They had a stash at the fire station there at one point.''

Most concerns about unexploded military ordnance today focus on land where civilians might be hurt. But active bases such as MacDill also are prime suspects for harboring buried bombs.

As late as 1997, state and federal officials held hearings on a discarded 500-pound mustard gas bomb suspected to have been buried in the 1950s somewhere off a runway at MacDill near a mangrove swamp. At the time, officials said they would monitor the site but do nothing else since no development was planned there.

Air Force Tech Sgt. Chris Miller, a MacDill spokesman, said the mustard bomb has long been rumored but hasn't been located.

Searches were conducted in 1991 and 1993. A 1994 report concluded it remained at large. Soil samples found no evidence of the ordnance.

``We haven't done anything else since then,'' Miller said. ``In the area they may think it is, proper security measures are in place to make sure unauthorized persons don't go anywhere near the site.''

Not Paying The Piper

Not even the government knows how much of a mess is out there. And although Congress is spending $100 million to $200 million a year to clean up unexploded ordnance and chemical warfare materiel, the expected final tab is in dispute.

The latest U.S. Defense Department estimate is $14 billion, but the General Accounting Office puts the bill closer to $100 billion. At current spending levels, a full environmental cleanup might take a century or more, many experts say.

Officials acknowledge, too, that technology might be inadequate to ensure safe removal of some of these old weapons. Metal detectors, shovels and backhoes often are the tools of choice.

``Our continued focus is to protect the health and safety of our citizens ... and gain a thorough understanding of the gaps in our knowledge,'' said Raymond DuBois, deputy undersecretary of defense in charge of military installations and the environment.

But agreement is far from unanimous about the degree of public threat posed by hoards of unexploded ordnance and buried chemicals, including sarin and other nerve agents, that could be seeping into freshwater wells or saltwater bays.

``The Army developed several risk assessment methods intended to answer the question, `How clean is clean?' However, the [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency] and state officials generally did not accept the results, and the methods received relatively poor marks in technical reviews,'' wrote environmental engineer Jacqueline MacDonald in a recent Rand think tank analysis.

Battles, too, are being fought at high government levels over whether the military must abide by federal environmental protection laws.

``It's been a big issue for over a dozen years, to what degree ordnance is subject to regulatory oversight,'' said Lenny Siegal, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight. ``The military has argued that, usually, it's not, that ordnance on a range is fulfilling its intended purpose and it's not a hazardous waste.''

Last year, defense officials tried to persuade Congress to grant exemptions from six federal environmental laws in the name of national security.

``There was a lot of immediate opposition,'' said Karen Weyland, legislative advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington.

The military was successful only in gaining exemption from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. But the Department of Defense is expected to keep returning to Congress for more environmental leeway, Weyland said.

Meanwhile, a federal district judge ruled in July the U.S. Department of Energy violated the law by granting itself authority to dodge costly cleanups of radioactive waste at U.S. weapons facilities.


09-15-03, 09:06 AM
Digging For Answers

A major munitions cleanup is under way in Hernando County on the former Brooksville Army Air Field, an old air base that now includes the Hernando County Airport, a key county road, an industrial park and headquarters for the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

Cindy Foley, an Army Corps of Engineers spokeswoman, said no military bombs or chemicals have been found in Brooksville, ``only scrap metal, bottle caps and cans.''

Other locations under scrutiny include Eglin Air Force Base near Fort Walton Beach, Cape Canaveral, Tyndall Air Force Base, Homestead Air Reserve Base and dozens of smaller sites.

More dangerous repositories may lie beneath the former Lakeland Army Air Field in Lakeland and Zephyrhills Municipal Airport.

Bridgers said underground storage tanks have been removed at the Lakeland site, but there could be additional chemical warfare material present.

``We think there's no reason for concern, but it will show up on our work list for 2004,'' Bridgers said.

Bridgers said he doesn't expect to launch a major dig such as the one under way in Brooksville.

The Zephyrhills Municipal Airport site, Bridgers said, was an offshoot of a bigger World War II base at the former Withlacoochee Army Air Field near Bushnell.

``We don't have any reason to suspect any ordnance remaining there,'' he said. ``The site has been visited. We placed it in `non-Department of Defense action indicated' at this time.''

But the Army did test mustard gas bombs in the nearby Withlacoochee State Forest in Hernando and Citrus counties. It's a site Bridgers said the Corps would like to search.

Nationally, the list of suspect sites is growing. As of June, the Defense Department said 2,307 sites, in nearly every state, are plagued by unexploded munitions. That increased by more than 500 sites last year.

The potential hazard may worsen: The Bush administration has announced plans for more base closures in 2005.

The government is developing policies to decide which sites should be cleaned up first and fastest.

Taken into account are the type of discarded ordnance that might be present, whether the public has access to the site, the potential for contaminating air and drinking water, and whether sensitive ecosystems could be destroyed.

``A lot of work is being done, just not enough,'' Siegal said.

Old Games, New Threats

Bombs from war games keep turning up where today's civilians are going about their lives.

Two decades ago, Jim Templeton was getting his 5 acres just north of State Road 50 ready to plant pasture grass. But the ground yielded a far different crop: dozens of old bazooka shells, many live and still explosive.

They were 40-year-old relics from when troops trained on more than 10,400 acres of pine scrubland in remote Hernando County, home then to fewer than 6,000 people.

An unknown number of dummy practice rockets and live rounds still litter the property. Officials say there could be unexploded mortar shells and grenades under the homes, back yards, roads and businesses that replaced the former gunnery range.

In a limited military sweep of the old range in the early 1980s, a few residents turned in bazooka shells they were keeping at home as souvenirs.

``The true magnitude of this unfolding ecological disaster is masked by the Pentagon's unwillingness to complete a reliable inventory or adopt credible cleanup rules,'' said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, another watchdog group.

The sites include anything the military used, from bus depots to what now are public airports and national wildlife refuges and forests.

Firefighters battling blazes in national forests have had to retreat when flames detonated old bombs, said Houghton, of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight.

``It's called cook-off. Firefighters were suddenly confronted by these blasts.''

The military identified 200 different chemicals that could be present at the sites. Some are unique to the munitions, and others are the pollutants seen at any civilian heavy industry site, said Corps spokeswoman Candice Walters.

Even if the government completes the task of clearing the millions of acres, the job might not be finished.

``If we have closed a site and someone finds something or has new information, we'll go back and look at it again,'' Walters said.

There's little doubt more will turn up.

``You will always find a piece of ordnance in a place you don't expect it,'' Houghton said.

Reporter Brad Smith can be reached at

Reporter Brad Smith can be reached at bsmith@tampatrib 259-7365. Reporter Neil Johnson can be reached at njohnson@tampatrib.com


David Becker holds a facsimile of a canister that he said will most likely be unearthed in the search for mustard gas and bombs used in training troops during World War II.