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Former military sites remain environmental time bombs
Sacramento Bee


April 23, 2007

From California to Washington, D.C., time bombs lurk beneath the surface - poised to contaminate wells, pollute waterways, jeopardize property values and endanger human lives.

More than 1,000 confirmed and suspected military sites, the largest number in the country, are spread across California. Many were abandoned decades ago but may still be contaminated with toxic chemicals, bombs and other munitions or even radioactive waste, a six-month examination by the Sacramento Bee found.

With so many sites, encounters with military debris and even munitions are becoming commonplace.

"I'm not looking for the stuff," said Yolo County (Calif.) farmer Duane Chamberlain, whose workers have found military debris about a half-dozen times during the past 15 years while plowing fields. The farm is next to the Yolo County Airport, and both sit atop a former World War II landing strip for B-25 bombers.

Under current funding, it could take more than 300 years to clean up all the former U.S. military sites. That cleanup could take even longer as the military continues to battle budget problems aggravated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bee, using hundreds of thousands of military records contained in seven databases obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act, found that the majority of California's sites are potentially the most dangerous because they predated strong environmental laws and stringent record-keeping requirements.

The Army Corps of Engineers' Formerly Used Defense Sites database of military sites closed before 1988 identifies 1,094 sites in California, nearly 400 more than the state with the next-largest number, Florida. San Diego, with 53 sites, is tied with Washington, D.C. as the U.S. cities with the third-most sites, following Honolulu and Seattle.

And, in many cases, no one is really sure how many sites need environmental cleanup.

The Army, for example, found no record that a site near Del Monte Beach in Monterey Bay, Calif., was ever owned, leased or even used by the military. But about 10 years ago, under 70 feet of water, scuba divers found more than a hundred .50-caliber cartridges and other hazardous ordnance and explosive waste.

"People tended to just look the other way when old munitions or fuel was just dumped wherever they felt like it," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst and former head of the securities-studies program at Georgetown University.

Cleanup of the military's former munitions ranges alone is potentially the largest environmental project in history, with 2,307 suspected munitions sites in the United States and territories.

In addition, half of all U.S. sites contaminated with perchlorate, a major component of rocket fuel, are in California and Texas.

America built the bulk of its military sites when fighting World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Cold War was more important than keeping records on the waste those efforts generated.

The result is that investigators looking for toxic waste and private contractors who want to build at former sites must try to fill large information gaps.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that military records on radioactively contaminated sites were so incomplete that it couldn't identify all of them. In 1992, the GAO found the military had identified 271 sites; months later it amended the number to 420.

The Defense Science Board Task Force reported that unexploded military munitions cover about 1,400 sites and 10 million acres, but much of what is buried is undocumented.

"Records and archives have been lost, and some munitions tests were never documented," the board wrote in a 2003 report. "(Military) experts rarely could give a specific numerical answer to any question involving these sites."

"The fact that they have few answers is not totally their fault; they have inherited a messy, ill-defined situation."

Environmental surprises related to former and current U.S. military bases have become commonplace across the United States and throughout the world.

In 1999, workers expanding a parking lot for a San Diego hotel came across 200 3-1/2-inch practice rockets.

Bob Dempsey, a civil engineer who has conducted hundreds of environmental investigations at former military sites for the Army Corps of Engineers, said he found environmental hazards at a number of sites that were supposed to be safe.

"I've probably found issues at 10 to 15 percent of them," he said.

The Department of Defense found that about 4,000 of the more than 9,000 sites in the United States and territories closed before 1988 did not have environmental hazards requiring further cleanup by the military. But in 2002, the GAO found the corps did "not have a sound basis" for declaring 1,468 of the sites safe.

Cleanup of just munitions - considered by the Environmental Protection Agency to be potentially the largest environmental cleanup in American history - could take between 75 and 330 years, a 2003 GAO report found. That same year, the Defense Science Board found that munitions cleanup was underfunded at $200 million annually, given that there are 10 million acres involved and that the cost of digging up and disposing of a single piece of ordnance can range from $2,500 to $16,000.


Russell Carollo can be reached at rcarollo(at)
Bee staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this report.
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