Unexploded Arms Require Cleanup At 16,000 U.S. Sites
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UNEXPLODED ARMS REQUIRE BIG CLEANUP AT 16,000 U.S. SITES
By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 25, 2002; Page A04
Unexploded munitions at 16,000 inactive military ranges, including chemical
and biological weapons, pose "imminent and substantial" public health risks
and could require the largest environmental cleanup program ever implemented
by the U.S. government, according to newly released Environmental Protection
The documents, made available by Public Employees for Environmental
Responsibility (PEER), a Washington-based advocacy group that advises
environmental whistle-blowers, also state that EPA officials are concerned
by the Pentagon's refusal to abide by EPA regulations when cleaning up the
One of the documents, a briefing paper written this summer for the EPA's
head enforcement officer, cites a "disturbing trend" by the military
services and the Army Corps of Engineers to limit their cleanup activities
or "take ill-advised short-cuts to limit costs."
The EPA documents released by PEER indicate the potential of far greater and
costlier cleanup problems associated with unexploded ordnance than
previously acknowledged by government officials.
Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, said his organization obtained the
documents confidentially from an EPA whistle-blower who believes the EPA and
the Defense Department are failing to adequately address groundwater and
soil contamination caused by unexploded munitions on inactive ranges across
30 million to 40 million acres, an area roughly the size of the state of
Cleaning up the unexploded munitions, Ruch said Friday in an interview, "may
be as large as the effort to clean up the military's nuclear weapons
programs. But what is striking about this is how little is known" about
contamination related to unexploded munitions, "and there are studious
efforts being made to ensure that it remains terra incognita."
One contaminated site now being cleaned up by the Army Corps of Engineers is
in the Spring Valley neighborhood of Northwest Washington near American
University, where the military experimented with chemical weapons in World
War I. Property in the area has elevated levels of arsenic and there is
evidence of buried munitions.
Other inactive ranges in the region with unexploded munitions include the
Aberdeen Proving Ground and Fort Ritchie Army Garrison in Maryland and
numerous sites in Virginia, including the former Nansemond Ordnance Depot,
Fort Pickett and the Naval Surface Warfare Center-Dahlgren, according to
Raymond F. DuBois, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations and
environment, acknowledged that cleaning up unexploded ordnance could cost
anywhere from $14 billion to "several times" that much, depending upon the
eventual use of the land.
But DuBois denied that the Defense Department has attempted to conceal to
magnitude of the problem and said that the Bush administration has pledged
to fully cooperate with the EPA and other federal and state agencies in an
aggressive cleanup effort.
"No one could deny that this is a long-term, large problem. We have never
hidden it. We don't intend to," DuBois said.
The problems uncovered in Washington's Spring Valley neighborhood, he said,
"came to me as a shock, but there are probably other Spring Valleys in the
country, and that's why we are doing everything we can to identify them and
characterize them. When a situation [like Spring Valley] is appropriately
elevated to [top priority status], we will reprogram dollars in the middle
of the fiscal year to address the problem immediately."
DuBois said his staff is working to complete an inventory by next spring of
unexploded ordnance on 15 million acres of former military land and 25
million acres still in the Pentagon's possession.
One senior EPA official, whose office produced two of the documents made
public by PEER, said both those documents are more than two years old and
cite problems related to Pentagon cleanup practices that have since been
"I think [Pentagon officials] have come a long way in recognizing the
problem and I think we're working together fairly well," the official said.
The official said he disagreed "on all accounts" with conclusions in a more
recent internal EPA document written this summer as a briefing paper for the
agency's enforcement director, John Suarez.
That document says EPA is "concerned" over the failure of the Army Corps of
Engineers and the military services to comply with EPA regulations and
"adequately coordinate with federal, state and tribal regulatory agencies."
"Cleanup of [unexploded ordnance] on military ranges has the potential to be
the largest environmental cleanup program ever to be implemented in the
United States," the document begins. "Some ranges each cover 100 to 500
square miles. Many of these properties are Formerly Used Defense Sites
(FUDS) where the military has relinquished control and are now being
utilized for purposes other than a military range yet still contain"
Most unexploded ordnance, the document says, contains chemicals defined as
"hazardous" under federal law. But the cleanup process is complicated even
further by "the potential presence of explosives."
"Defining the true nature of the explosives or [unexploded ordnance] threats
must be addressed first, before standard investigative activities are
undertaken to define the extent of hazardous chemical contamination," the
The other two documents made public by PEER are reports written in 2000
summarizing the results of a survey conducted by EPA officials of 61 current
and former military facilities containing 203 ranges that were either
inactive, closed or transferred to other owners.
One of the documents, an interim report dated April 2000 but never made
public, states that over 50 percent of the survey respondents reported that
"chemical or biological weapons were found or suspected on their ranges."
The interim report also says that respondents reported nine "explosions of
military munitions, six of which involved fatalities."
The interim report concluded: "Many aspects of [the Defense Department's]
responses to the immense challenges of clearing and transferring ranges have
been called into question by EPA. The results of this survey also highlight
many situations in which [EPA regional offices] are not satisfied with [the
Defense Department's] handling of the complex policy, technical and
regulatory issues" involving inactive and transferred ranges.
None of those points, however, were included in the final report.
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