Fourteen years and $100 million later, Fort Ord is riddled with dangerous munitions.
Thursday, January 17, 2008
Lyle Shurtleff locks the barbed-wire gate behind his government-issue Jeep. Shurtleff, Fort Ord’s military munitions manager, radios an Army colleague of his whereabouts – just in case this tour turns explosive. Shurtleff drives up the hill where an old guard tower stands, albeit leaning slightly. Along this firing line, soldiers unloaded clips into pop-up targets and a rusty, armored personnel carrier below.
On the surface, the wide expanse of open land looks inviting. The green manzanita leaves gleam in morning sun. The soil soaks up rain from the winter’s first major downpour. A view of Monterey Bay unfolds through puffy clouds.
But the pastoral landscape is misleading.
Unexploded grenades lie on the sandy soil. Bullet shells mingle with grass. Mortars lurk beneath the dense brush.
Shurtleff walks to the target area, just north of South Boundary Road and across from Pasadera Golf Course and York School. The range is part of the so-called Impact Area, a 6,500-acre no-man’s land where the Army needs to scour for munitions.
The faded-green personnel carrier sits at the edge of a dry vernal pond. The rig looks like a tank because of an attached turret. Machine gunners riddled the metal seat inside the cockpit with bullet holes. At Shurtleff’s feet are practice rockets, six-inch-long rods with black fins on their ends. It’s not the rockets that worry Shurtleff, however.
He picks up a fragment of a 40 mm grenade. Grenade duds are the most dangerous munitions out here, he says, because they often remain on the surface and can be detonated by one wrong step.
“We have no way to know what would cause it to fire again,” Shurtleff says. “As long as we don’t kick anything, we should be OK.”
As dangerous as the grenades and other munitions may be, it will be years before the Army removes them. The Impact Area is covered in central maritime chaparral up to eight feet high. The California Department of Fish and Game considers the chaparral a valuable and threatened plant community. Since Fort Ord contains the largest remaining stand of the habitat on the Central Coast, the Army is obligated to protect it while cleaning up ordnance. To the chagrin of smoke-sensitive residents and delight of wildlife biologists, the Army will burn the chaparral in roughly 100-acre portions before digging up the duds.
If not for the sensitive habitat, Shurtleff says, it would be a lot faster and safer to scrape off the soil with an armored bulldozer and sift out the debris. “We could turn it into a parking lot in relatively short time period,” he deadpans.
But there are few shortcuts on the Army’s path to clean up the multimillion-dollar mess it left behind.
Cleanup through 2021
Fourteen years after Fort Ord closed, the former military base is littered with explosives. The Army has removed old ordnance from 4,000 acres and cleared another 2,000 acres that did not need munitions removal, Fort Ord Base Realignment and Closure officials say. The Army has mainly cleaned up ranges closest to Monterey Peninsula cities on the outskirts of the Impact Area. Army officials suspect the remaining 6,500 acres have the highest number of munitions.
In other words, the Army has scoured the easy stuff.
The Army projects munitions cleanup will continue through 2021 and cost about $187 million. To date, the Army has spent about $100 million on ordnance removal. The overall cleanup of the Superfund site, which includes groundwater treatment, has cost $332 million.
The Army doesn’t just need to fish out the shrapnel but also excavate and sift soil contaminated with lead, TNT and other hazardous chemicals. The cleanup process is tedious, generating enough paperwork to bury even the devoted gadfly in bedtime reading. That’s not to say the Army doesn’t have its critics.
Watchdog groups like the Fort Ord Environmental Justice Network and Fort Ord Community Advisory Group have lambasted the Army every step of the way. The groups say the Army doesn’t take their comments seriously and hasn’t significantly changed cleanup methods despite the opposition. And the community groups now are equally skeptical of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority as it takes over the cleanup responsibility of 3,340 acres. The Environmental Services Cooperative Agreement between the Army and the authority, officials say, will expedite the cleanup and allow for quicker redevelopment. But chances are, even when the base is officially clean, munitions will still hibernate beneath Fort Ord’s soil.
Five wars of target practice
From World War I through the first Gulf war, thousands of troops got their target practice on Fort Ord, a 28,000-acre base roughly the size of San Francisco. In 1917, the Army base started as a training area and firing range for units stationed at the Presidio in Monterey. In 1940, the base become home to the 7th Infantry Division. During World War II, numerous other Army units trained at Fort Ord, with as many as 50,000 soldiers on the base. Fort Ord saw a flood of new recruits from 1957 throughout the Vietnam War when the base was a basic training center. But like most military bases across the country, the Army was careless with solvents and fuel disposal, causing volatile organic compounds like trichloroethene to leach into aquifers.
In 1990, the installation was designated a federal Superfund site mainly because a leaky burn pit and landfill contaminated the groundwater. A year later, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission slated Fort Ord for closure. The base was shuttered in 1994, leaving behind five wars worth of hand grenades, bazooka rounds and land mines used for training.
Fred H. Lawson, who was a reserve division commander at Fort Ord from the 1960s to the early 1980s, says troops would pick up their own expended shells but that’s it. The same goes for the Impact Area. That was home to several ranges spread out east of General Jim Moore Boulevard between South Boundary and Eucalyptus roads, forming a firing circle. Nobody would dare cross the firing line to pick up duds, Lawson says.
“You didn’t let anyone go out in the Impact Area,” he says. “That was definitely taboo.”
Although Lawson says the munitions were tightly regulated, it’s widely acknowledged that soldiers would bury excess ammunition. Shurtleff, who was an executive officer for an infantry battalion at Fort Ord from 1988 to 1990, says troops would dump their ammo to avoid the bureaucratic process of turning the rounds back in.
As a result, Fort Ord soil has layers of ammunition, from Stokes mortars used in the trenches of World War I to rifle grenades for the Vietnam jungle.
“You’ll find all kinds of munitions,” Shurtleff says. “On the surface is the new stuff and as you go down you go back in time.”
So far, no one has been injured by unexploded ordnance since the base closed. But munitions turn up routinely on and around Fort Ord. Last month Fort Ord Reuse Authority contractors found a 60 mm mortar projectile among construction debris near General Jim Moore Boulevard in Seaside. Last year, construction workers at Marina Heights found antitank rockets and mortars that had to be detonated on site.
In all, munitions specialists responded to 11 ordnance incidents in 2007.
Most of the time Bureau of Land Management crews (which oversee Fort Ord habitat), Army consultants or construction crews discover the munitions. But a barbed fence fortified with concertina wire is all that separates residents from venturing into hazardous territory.
Officials involved with the base-closure process in the early 1990s say they never expected munitions cleanup to take this long. “I thought it would be done by now,” says Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel).
While Farr wishes cleanup could move faster, he says the Army has been slowed by lawsuits and the constraints of prescribed burns. That’s why he helped broker a deal that will have the Army pay the reuse authority $100 million to finish the cleanup of 3,340 acres.
Another player in the cleanup game
The reuse authority has signed a remediation agreement with national environmental consultant LFR Inc., which along with its subcontractors will clean up the munitions sites for $89.8 million. The authority already has received about $59 million in grants from the Army.
Last month, the reuse authority started vegetation clearance along General Jim Moore just east of Seaside city limits. Once the remaining property transfers to the authority sometime this spring or summer, mountain bikers and joggers will have limited access to the reuse authority’s properties. (See sidebar, pg. 24.)
The Army already has done cleanup along the Seaside properties, which once were firing lines for hand grenades and projectiles. The reuse authority is returning to look for munitions under the trees, fences, buildings and asphalt. The Seaside parcels will be cleaned enough to host future homes. Monterey County will get the rest of the authority properties, which are slated for a veteran’s cemetery, horse park and a Monterey Peninsula College police training facility.
The cleanup will take seven years, the reuse authority says, which is half as long as the Army would have taken. Instead of relying on money appropriated in yearly federal budget cycles, FORA will get the money up front.
But community groups are skeptical.
LeVonne Stone, executive director and founder of the Fort Ord Environmental Justice Network, says the reuse authority is not experienced enough to handle military base cleanup.
“They’re no more qualified than I am to be in charge of cleanup,” Stone says.
Stone also doesn’t like that the agreement shifts cleanup duties from the polluter, the Army. “They’re responsible for the mess and they should clean it up,” Stone says.
Vienna Merritt Moore, interim chairwoman of the Fort Ord Community Advisory Group, doubts the reuse authority group will do the cleanup better than the Army.
“They have no proof of how they are going to do it faster and cheaper,” Moore says. She also says she believes it is a conflict of interest for the authority to be in charge of transferring property it is responsible for cleaning up.
Stan Cook, reuse authority program manager for the cleanup, agrees members of his group are not munitions experts. That’s why they hired unexploded ordnance consultants. He notes that if munitions are discovered after the cleanup, the Army is obligated to remove them.
Reuse authority officials say they have no conflict.
“This is not about lining the pockets of developers… this is about clearing the parcels and making it safe to use,” authority Executive Officer Michael Houlemard said at a Dec. 3 community meeting.
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control, the Environmental Protection Agency, the insurance agents, as well as the Army and future property owners, all will monitor the cleanup. Mostly, the reuse authority will mechanically remove vegetation. There is a 150-acre parcel near East Garrison that likely will require burning, but officials say they’d rather not burn at all.
Still, the authority is bound by the same habitat guidelines as the Army. The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Services required the Army to devise a habitat management plan for the former military base to protect plant and animal species. Prescribed burning is the preferred way to remove maritime chaparral for munitions cleanup because the habitat germinates better when it is burned.
Burns face public opposition
Stone and many others vehemently oppose the burns. The Army, Stone says, is more concerned about protecting the chaparral than the residents who have to breathe smoke from the fires.
“This isn’t a forest preserve,” Stone says. “They want to save the lizards but they don’t care about the people.”
A report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that examined air pollution from the October 2003 burn found the smoke to be “no apparent public health hazard.” The fire burned out of control, scorching more than 1,500 acres, when the Army had planned to set 500 ablaze. The fire clouded the Monterey Peninsula with smoke, causing respiratory problems for some residents.
In that burn, acrolein, aluminum and particulate matter were detected above safe levels, the report says. Acrolein, used to make chemical weapons in World War I, can cause watery eyes and a sore throat. High levels of particulate matter can cause respiratory irritation for people with asthma.
Army critics say the report was flawed and have called for a full environmental impact report and health assessment of the burns. Since the ’03 burn, the Army has scaled back its burn areas, increased firebreaks and adjusted its weather prescription. The Army now waits for a clear, windless morning, hoping the smoke column will rise to higher altitudes before it spreads out.
Shurtleff says such weather conditions are few during their burn season from July 1 until the winter rains.
Despite reducing the size of burns, Moore doesn’t trust the Army’s ability to control the fires. “The Army’s solution for pollution,” she says, “it’s Russian roulette. Maybe everybody will be OK, but maybe not.”
Gail Youngblood, environmental coordinator for the Fort Ord BRAC Office, admits no smoke is healthy to inhale.
“Smoke certainly isn’t good for you. We know that,” she says. “We have to balance the impact on the habitat. This maritime chaparral will disappear if it’s not burned.”
Army officials also cite the added safety that controlled burns give unexploded ordnance workers.
“If you look at manual cutting and the matter that is left behind versus burning,” Youngblood says, “the surface of the ground is much clearer if you burn it.”
Community groups also oppose the Army’s decision to do away with its relocation program. Residents who don’t want to be near the smoke will have to foot the bill for hotel rooms and travel expenses. Army officials say the smaller burn areas and limited smoke don’t necessitate a relocation program.
Once the vegetation is gone, specialists clear surface munitions and then use magnetometers to detect underground metal objects. The surveying technique is not 100 percent effective because it’s harder to detect ordnance the smaller it is and deeper it’s buried. The danger of lingering ordnance means developers of a golf resort in Del Rey Oaks will do extra digging for munitions.
But the Army won’t just have to deal with picking up the rockets and grenades. The lead-contaminated soil also will have to be removed or cleaned.
Lead poses serious health concerns
According to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, lead can harm almost every organ and system in the body. It is most damaging to children.
“A child who swallows large amounts of lead may develop blood anemia, severe stomach ache, muscle weakness and brain damage,” says the disease registry’s website. “Even at much lower levels of exposure, lead can affect a child’s mental and physical growth.”
In addition to lead, military munitions leave behind heavy metals like antimony and copper. While both metals occur naturally in the environment, breathing in high levels of either can cause nausea and lung and heart problems.
The explosive compounds RDX, TNT and HMX also have been detected on Fort Ord. (See box, pg. 22.)
The Army plans to mitigate these substances in the Impact Area by excavating the contaminated dirt to an average of 225 parts per million for lead, 5.9 ppm for TNT and 3.1 ppm for RDX for each range. About 125,000 cubic yards of dirty soil would be removed. Sensitive habitat areas wouldn’t be disturbed. And under a controversial proposal, the Army wants to place the soil in the old landfill near CSU Monterey Bay.
The Fort Ord Environmental Justice Network says it will fight. Peter deFur, technical assistance grant adviser for the organization, says the weighted-average approach will leave pockets of lead-contaminated soil. “It’s pretty clear that there is no known safe level [for lead],” deFur says. “Humans are not the only thing that we have to protect here. Leaving poisonous chemicals out in the range land for wildlife to collect and assimilate and to kill them is not acceptable either.”
As for disposing of the soil in the Fort Ord landfill, deFur doesn’t understand the logic of putting more pollutants on top of an already-tainted site that still is undergoing cleanup for groundwater contamination and methane.
Youngblood stresses that the Army will place the soil on top of the waste facility and install another cap.
Although the decision to use the landfill is not final, state and federal regulators support the plan. Martin Hausladen, EPA project manager, says the lead won’t migrate to the groundwater.
But Stone maintains her disgust for the proposal, saying it could endanger nearby CSUMB students. “That’s the sickest thing I’ve ever heard,” she says.
The Army says it will cover and wet down the dust to ensure students aren’t exposed.
This isn’t the first time the Army has used the landfill for contaminated soil. It also took soil from the beach ranges and dumped it in the Fort Ord landfill.
Beach ranges still have lead
The former beach ranges are expected to open as Fort Ord Dunes State Park, which will allow access to four miles of shoreline, trails and campsites. (Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed closing the park as part of state budget cuts). Sampling in January 2007 indicated that areas of high bullet density still exist on site but the report concluded adverse effects from exposure to lead are unlikely.
Samples ranged as high as 24,000 ppm, although most were well below the Army’s objective of 1,860 ppm. The Army’s goal is less stringent than the state’s residential cleanup level of 150 ppm.
But state officials say the park is safe for recreational use. Roman Racca, remedial project manager for the Department of Toxic Substances Control, says one flake of lead can cause high samples. “If you walk around out there you may find some pieces of lead and flakes of bullets,” Racca says, adding that the public will be limited to the former target areas.
According to deFur, the beach should have been cleaned up better. “I don’t want my grandchildren running around picking up shells,” he says.
Part of Fort Ord fabric
With rain drizzling on the windshield, Shurtleff drives his Jeep into the area of ranges 43-48, the site of the 2003 burn. A few oak trees in the distance still are charred from the fire but most of the chaparral looks green and healthy. Range 45, however, is bald. The Army sifted the soil as opposed to spot digging because of the presence of 40 mm grenades.
Although this area looks harmless, the Army doesn’t want anyone visiting the old ranges. The popularity of the area for mountain biking and jogging make that hard to enforce. In October, police caught a mountain biker riding in the area along the firebreaks.
“He said he’d been doing it for years,” Shurtleff says.
Despite the threat to public safety, the greatest hazard is for munitions workers, Shurtleff says. Since the base closed in 1994, workers have dug about 12.9 million holes and removed more than 47,500 explosive munitions.
Detonations are rare.
“We have almost 2 million hours in the field without an instance related to ordnance,” Shurtleff says.
But before ordnance removal resumes, the chapparral must be cleared. Starting as soon as July, the Army wants to burn as many as 800 acres a year in the Impact area, in 100-acre batches.
And even after the impact area is turned over to the BLM for habitat management, burns still will be required to maintain the chaparral.
“They are going to be burning for eternity,” Stone predicts.