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'Unexploded ordnance' cleanup won't be quick or cheap

May 24, 1999

Old Bombs at Fort RitchieBy BRENDAN KIRBY / Staff Writer

photo: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer




FORT RITCHIE - Inside Bill Hofmann's office is a bucket of decades-old flares and rusted World War I-era mortar shells, a small reminder of the mountain of work that faces Army officials as they prepare to hand over control of the former base to civilian authorities.

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Hofmann, the post's environmental coordinator, was largely responsible for the plan to remove what Army officials call "unexploded ordnance" that lurks below the surface on as much as half of the 638-acre base.

Saturday was the deadline for public comment on the Army's cleanup proposal, which takes up a 3-inch-thick binder. Military officials said they granted a 15-day extension to the Environmental Protection Agency.

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The cleanup will not be quick - or cheap.

Hofmann said he expects to have a final revised document by the end of June. It will take Pentagon officials about four months to formulate a detailed step-by-step work plan.

By then, it will be close to winter and workers will have to wait until the weather warms up. The work, which consists of methodically checking the land foot-by-foot with metal detectors, is expected to last until 2001.

The timeline has drawn criticism from officials from the PenMar Development Corp., which was created to transform the base into a technology and business training center.

James A. LaFleur, PenMar's executive director, said redevelopment efforts have been put on hold because of the munitions issue.

PenMar withdrew its economic development conveyance application on March 31 because its business plan had not accounted for such a large affected area or for such a lengthy cleanup period.

LaFleur said he expects to submit an amended application in June.

He said PenMar officials are eager for the Army to settle on a firm schedule.

"We're waiting to see what the plan is What if they come back with something that is dramatically different?" he said. "What we want to see is the final plan."

LaFleur said the Army has so far treated the unexploded ordnance problem and the redevelopment plan as separate issues.

"Somewhere, those two have to be tied together," he said.

Hofmann said recent discoveries prove the risk is real.

Poring over old maps, records and newspaper articles, Army officials determined that about half of the base has been used as a firing range at one time or another.

Workers using metal detectors sampled randomly selected grids throughout the area and dug up objects they found.

From that process, which took about 18 months, the Army narrowed the "high probability" area to about 150 acres on the southwestern part of the property.

Workers dug 3,000 holes. Most of the objects they found were harmless fragments or practice rounds that contained sand, Hofmann said. But 27 contained live explosives, he said.

"There are things they are finding that are dangerous," said William M. Spigler, the base transition coordinator. "The safety issue is the reason the Army has to clean this up It wouldn't be responsible to hand this over the way it is."

What's more, it is impossible to differentiate the dummy shells from the live rounds, Hofmann said.

"If you find this laying in the woods, you can't tell whether it's dangerous or not," Hofmann said.

The work is labor intensive, and Spigler said the military estimates the cost at $670 per dig and $47,000 for every piece of unexploded ordnance.

The weapons come from the periods when Ritchie was used as a National Guard training facility and a U.S. military spy school. It opened in 1927 as Camp Ritchie for guardsmen and became a military intelligence training facility during World War II.

Hofmann said the most common munitions unearthed have been 60 mm mortar shells and Stokes mortars.

Critics who have questioned the need for an exhaustive search for old explosives point out that much of the target area has been used by soldiers and their families for decades without incident.

Three holes on the base's golf course, for instance, are within the high probability zone. So is the youth activity center.

Hofmann said most of the explosives have been safely buried. That will not be the case if the ground is dug up so new buildings can be constructed.

"For ordnance to be a problem, you have to be exposed to it. Ordnance 3 feet underground isn't a problem," he said.

Spigler said concern and environmental regulations were not as great in the 1950s, when housing was built in the area.

"There was not much fear about this stuff," he said.

But that does not mean the danger does not exist, Hofmann said. Live ammunition contains chemicals that become unstable over time.

He said a crew removing debris along the side of Reservoir Road on the base found three mortar shells recently. One of them had live explosives.

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