The Soldier's Lethal Litter: Unexploded Bombs in US HL: As many military target ranges close, cleanup may take decades, big budget, careful handling

The Department of Defense (DOD) has several million time bombs on its hands. Unfortunately, no one knows exactly where they all are.

Over the past seven decades, the United States military has dropped millions of artillery shells, bombs, grenades, and other explosive ordnance on federal land. Many of the objects never exploded. As more military bases close, unexploded ordnance (UXO in military parlance) has become a high-profile issue that may take decades and hundreds of millions of dollars to resolve.

While much of the public attention has been on hazardous or radioactive waste generated by the military, explosives and military ordnance have gone largely unnoticed.

``It's a sleeping environmental giant,'' says environmentalist Lenny Siegel of the Pacific Study Group. Mr. Siegel, who has been working on military-waste issues for five years, says the military has ignored the safety and environmental issues associated with ordnance. In addition to the threat of explosion, he points out that ordnance often contains toxic materials such as lead.

The UXO problem extends from the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe to the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, with perhaps several dozen sites in between. In Edison, N.J., a community college, an industrial park, and the regional headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency were built on a site that used to contain the Army's Rariton Arsenal. The base closed in the late 1960s. But since 1989, explosives experts from the US Army Corps of Engineers have removed more than 100,000 pieces of UXO from the 3,200-acre site. Army officials say the cleanup could last five more years.

In 1991, California's Fort Ord was put on the base closure list. Before the base can be turned over to civilian use, however, the 8,000-acre bombing range must be cleared of UXO. Cost estimates for the project range from $70 million to $800 million.

Despite the threat of unexploded ordnance, no one at DOD appears to know how extensive the problem is. When asked how many acres of federal land had UXO on them, an officer at the Defense Explosives Safety Board said, ``I wouldn't even begin to estimate.''

Some analysts believe 12 million acres, including up to 5 million acres of land now controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, were at one time used for ordnance training. In some cases, federal officials believe it would be more dangerous - and more expensive - to remove the ordnance than to leave it where it is.

Rob Wilcox, an ordnance technician with the Army Corps of Engineers, says the acreage figures on UXO can be ``very misleading.'' Mr. Wilcox points to a munitions facility in Nebraska that has some 70,000 acres. ``That sounds like a big area, but only part of that would be heavily contaminated [with UXO].''

The Jefferson Proving Ground in southeastern Indiana may be the DOD's worst UXO problem. Since World War II, the Army has launched some 23 million rounds of ordnance onto the 100-square-mile facility. Today, more than a million unexploded mines, artillery shells, and bombs remain at the site, some dozens of feet beneath the surface. The land was recommended for closure by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission in 1988, and Army officials are hoping to turn it over to the Department of Interior for use as a wildlife refuge rather than attempt remediation.

Native Hawaiians rejoiced last month when the federal government turned over Kahoolawe, the smallest inhabitable island in the archipelago, to the state. Used since World War II as a naval bombing range, the 45-square-mile island is sacred to many indigenous Hawaiians, who have been working for two decades to get the island returned.

Congress authorized $400 million for UXO cleanup over the next 10 years. But Dr. Emmett Aluli, a physician who led the fight over the island, believes that won't be enough.

``There are so many archaeological sites and it is such a fragile environment, there is no way to clean the entire place up; $400 million will just clean up a quarter of the island,'' Dr. Aluli says.

CRITICS of the DOD believe UXO should be considered hazardous waste. ``If the materials in [artillery] shells are hazardous, then when they fall to the ground and are exploded, they are still hazardous wastes,'' says Rena Steinzor, an attorney at the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Maryland. Ms. Steinzor and the Military Toxics Project are threatening to sue the EPA because the agency has not written rules regarding military munitions.

Under the 1992 Federal Facilities Compliance Act, the agency was given until April 1993 to determine when and if munitions become hazardous waste. The EPA says they will not complete the rules until July 1995. Elliott Laws, of EPA's Office of Solid Waste, says his agency is trying to work out an agreement with DOD on munitions. But he adds, ``We would be hard pressed for some legal justification not to classify them [munitions] as hazardous.''

UXO is remarkably persistent. Fifty years after D-Day, French explosives experts continue to remove hundreds of tons of ordnance from the French countryside every year, some of it dating back to World War I. Civilians in Vietnam continue to be killed or maimed by ordnance dropped by US bombers two decades ago.

Several million acres of French countryside have been closed to visitors since World War I because of UXO. Some observers believe that may happen in the US. Wilcox agrees. A lack of trained munitions experts and a shrinking military budget will limit the UXO cleanup. At some sites, Wilcox says, the DOD will have to decide ``we just really need to leave this alone.''

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