09-15-03, 08:06 AM
WWII Leaves Danger Zones <br />
By BRAD SMITH and NEIL JOHNSON The Tampa Tribune <br />
Published: Sep 14, 2003 <br />
TAMPA - Although the last battle of a declared war fought on the U.S. mainland ended 138 years...
09-15-03, 08:06 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 email@example.com
Photo by: FRED BELLET
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.