The Fort Ord Landmine
Six million holes and counting--the toxic legacy continues.
Thursday, March 20, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell: Artillery Avenue: Gen. Jim Moore Boulevard was closed this week so Army chemical weapons experts could check out some old smoke bombs.
An Army chemical weapons inspection team from the Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas arrived at Fort Ord this week to verify that freshly discovered munitions contain nothing more harmful than smoke.
Army officials and regulators believe that to be the case, because, they maintain, no chemical weapons were ever used at the base, but that fact is in dispute.
A new Army policy requires that when munitions are discovered, they must be proven to be free of chemical weapons prior to disposal.
As clean-up progresses in the vast, 8,000-acre former training zone known as the Multi-Range Area (MRA), which borders Seaside and Del Rey Oaks, the process is like peeling an onion. Because the latest find--six mortar rounds and a projector used to spew smoke screens--was discovered near residential areas, Gen. Jim Moore Boulevard was closed this week to allow inspection crews to work.
Jim Willison, head of the Army''s Environmental and Resources directorate at the base, calls the work "routine." At a community meeting last week, he said, "There''s no record of any chemical weapons ever being fired at Fort Ord."
However, according to a statement released by the Army, that does not necessarily mean the smoke bombs are clean. "Although there is no evidence that Fort Ord used any chemical-filled munitions on any of its ranges, the policy requires the filler [in the munitions] to be assessed, because these types of munitions also contained other fillers including chemical agents, incendiary and high explosives," the Army memo says.
Eventually the mortar rounds and projector will be destroyed with explosives.
Besides being an EPA-administered Superfund site--due to leaky landfills and poisoned water supplies--the former fort is littered with toxic structures, and its ranges are choked with bullet lead and thousands of spent and unexploded projectiles. News that unexplo- ded ordnance is being checked for chemical agents draws the concern of citizen advocates who hector the Army at every turn. Although he did not want to be named in this article, the head of the Fort Ord Toxics Project says, as he has repeatedly for years, that the Army is hiding facts.
"They lie by omission--they don''t tell you the whole story," says the tireless advocate, who says he fears retribution from the Army. "They''re not telling the public that there is threat, that there is risk."
Another longtime citizen advocate, Deborah Mickelson, asked questions at the meeting last week. She was concerned about the proximity of development in the Del Rey Oaks part of the base to areas still deemed hazardous. "Any thought of building a huge hotel and golf course with dangerous ordnance spitting-distance away, I still don''t understand."
Mickelson has been following clean-up progress on the base for ten years and thinks it doesn''t ever get better. "People have a right to be safe," she says. "Fences are fine and signage is fine, but there''s an end to the number of hotels and golf courses you can build out here."
The need to clean up the base is accelerated by pressure to develop it for housing and recreation. But the conditions do not always cooperate.
Efforts to clean up the MRA were stymied last year when a prescribed brush-burn was canceled because the weather was not suitable. The burn--used to clear ground to reveal hidden ordnance--could only go off when weather would allow smoke to rise fast and not spread into the valley.
The clean-up of Fort Ord has cost an estimated $300 million and will cost at least another $300 million, according to the EPA. The scale of the work is baffling. According to the Army, some six million holes have been dug on Fort Ord. Some 72,487 pieces of unexploded ordnance have been removed, including 5,000 containing high explosives.
For John Chestnutt, the EPA''s Superfund project manager for Fort Ord, that''s only the first few layers of the onion. When a 20-acre area at the edge of the Multi-Range Area was to be cleared for playing fields for York School, it was thought it would be munitions-free because of its outer-layer location just off South Boundary Road. Live rockets with the firing pins in place were found. Now the playing fields are ringed with two rows of fence to keep players from chasing stray soccer balls into No-Man''s Land.
"The whole MRA is a nasty place to be. That''s the bottom line," says Chestnutt. "The safety issue posed by the ordnance is clearly the overwhelming threat."