Civilian unit looks for live shells

April 06, 1995|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Sun Staff Writer

A 15-man team of civilian explosives experts, using sophisticated metal detectors, has started searching for unexploded chemical shells that may exist along the heavily populated boundary of Aberdeen Proving Ground near Edgewood and Joppa.

The team began combing the 5 1/2 -mile boundary this week, looking for unexploded shells on the ground and marking areas where munitions may lie a few feet underground.

The Army announced the search about 10 days ago, after meeting with Harford County officials about the cleanup of shells from an old chemical warfare testing and training area known as the Nike site.

The 300-acre site, where the Army plans to remove an unknown number of unexploded shells thought to contain mustard agent and phosgene, is near hundreds of homes and three public schools in Edgewood.

Army officials suspected news of the cleanup would cause public concern, so they decided to search for shells along the entire boundary with Edgewood and Joppa.

"We understand that, because this issue has surfaced, the public has concerns about our boundary," said Gary Holloway, proving ground spokesman.

Army officials said yesterday they do not expect to find large concentrations of chemical shells during the search.

With housing developments visible through the trees, explosives experts employed by an Army contractor walked through woods and underbrush yesterday, sweeping bright yellow metal detectors over every inch of ground.

They were searching an area near the Route 755 gate in Edgewood, between the Amtrak railroad tracks and a 6-foot chain-link fence erected a year ago to keep the public out. Inside the fence are signs reading: "Danger. Unexploded Shells. Keep Off."

The team from Human Factors Applications Inc. of Waldorf has divided the 850-acre search area into grids measuring 200 feet by 440 feet.

Workers are using a technology called global positioning system, which relies on satellites to help map areas precisely. The area extends 1,500 feet inside the fence between the Bush and Gunpowder rivers.

No rounds were found on the ground yesterday, but each time a worker's metal detector beeped, it indicated a buried piece of metal that will have to be mapped for future cleanup.

The metal detectors, known as magnetometers, sounded as many as 100 times in each grid.

Whether the devices were indicating a coin, a bolt, a shell fragment or an unexploded shell won't be known until the Army deems it necessary to excavate the site.

But it is unlikely the Army would excavate a grid unless its mapping showed an unusually high concentration of metal.

If a shell is found on the ground, Army officials said, it will be removed immediately by soldiers trained in the handling of chemical weapons.

Shells used in testing and training along the boundary mostly were small caliber rounds, such as those fired from mortars or bazookas, said Samuel J. Hooper, director of the operations for the Army contractor.

An accidental explosion during the boundary search is unlikely, said Joe Craten, the post's top safety and environmental official.

Even if a single round were to explode, the chemical inside would dissipate quickly, he said.

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