Bomb pros sweeping Ft. Meade Teams clearing land of buried munitions

June 21, 1992|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,Staff Writer

Out in the wilds of Fort Meade's old firing ranges, a team of demolitions experts carefully sweeps a 40-square-acre field for unexploded artillery shells.

The retired military men line up and walk seven-abreast, sticking red flags in the ground to mark spots where the monotonous squeal of the sensitive detectors indicate metal buried up to 25 feet deep.

On any given day, they can cover about 3 square acres. Everything depends on what they find, which can be anything from unexploded grenades and 2-inch rocket warheads to old wire and shrapnel that can't be identified.

"In some areas, we are finding more ordnance than we would care to find in a lifetime," said Daniel Stephens, field project leader for UXB International, the company subcontracted to do the survey. "In other areas, we could go for a week and not find anything at all."

In nine months, less than half of the 9,000 acres scheduled to be surveyed has been swept. But already, a stark inventory of war weapons dating back 70 years has turned up, much of it buried only 6 inches below the surface.

All this is part of a $6 million project by the U.S. Army Toxic and Hazardous Materials Agency to discover what is buried at the Army fort, which has transferred 8,100 acres of firing ranges and practice fields to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

The Army's decision to preserve the land instead of selling it to developers has saved at least $100 million, the estimated cost of clearing the heavily forested property of all unexploded and potentially dangerous weaponry.

Because most of the topsoil won't be dug up for home foundations, roads and other amenities, many of the unexploded shells that are buried more than 6 inches deep can stay.

The only section being entirely cleaned up is the 470-acre Tipton Army Airfield, which the Army must also give up.

Because the runway could end up in the hands of the county or the state for a general aviation airport, all ordnance, even that 20 feet underground, must be removed.

The survey team has discovered that Tipton was built on top of a munitions dump. Apparently, there was a hill near the airport that served as a target for tanks. A map of Tipton hanging on a trailer wall is covered with red dots, indicating positive readings on the metal detector.

Just behind the runway, members of a bomb disposal unit are busy attaching explosives to live artillery shells deemed too hazardous to move. One by one, they blow up, sending small plumes of smoke into the sky.

The problem is trying to find out where the largest concentrations of munitions are before sweeping an area.

"Prior to 1960, records were not kept very well," Stephens said. "If they were kept at all, it was a miracle."

What they have found can be startling.

On one typical day, on just 3 acres, the demolitions team found 37 artillery shells and mortars, including 2-inch-diameter, high-explosive anti-tank rocket warheads and M-9 rifle grenades, dating back to the first and second world wars. In all, searchers discovered 91 ordnance-related items and 889 pieces of scrap metal.

Surveyors have had 76,000 metal contacts, of which 744 are considered live ordnance, on the 3,852 acres of surveyed land. ++ They still have about 5,200 acres left.

Items found include 105mm and 155mm artillery shells, 60mm mortar rounds, hand grenades, small-arms rounds and bullets, spanning a time period from World War I through the Korean War. Reserve troops training for the Persian Gulf war practiced only with small arms.

Surveyors have not found any evidence of mustard gas containers rumored to be buried near Tipton Airfield, said Dominique Edwards, technical project manager for the Army Toxic and Hazardous Materials Agency.

Not everything they find, however, can be blown up, fired from a gun or used to kill an enemy soldier. On land surveyed near Route 198, off a dirt path called Bald Eagle Drive (the Army called it Tank Road), there is ample evidence of overpowering ballplayers who use the nearby athletic fields.

"We are finding softballs by the bucketful," Stephens said. Also uncovered are golf balls and one piece of history: an old musket barrel dating from the Revolutionary War, which was cleaned and put aside in the company's trailer near Tipton.

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