U.S. to scrap military shells Rocket target range fragments from war found on Assateague

Unearthed by wind, rain

Danger of explosion from 130 munitions minor, officials say

May 13, 1998|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,SUN STAFF

ASSATEAGUE -- More than 50 years after Assateague was used as a rocket target range, federal authorities are set to remove World War II munitions that were uncovered by violent wind and waves in February.

While there appears to be little danger of explosion from an estimated 130 rockets and shell fragments that lie under about 2 feet of sand, officials say hauling the material to a scrap yard will ensure safety on the heavily used beach.

If the weather cooperates, the project should be finished before crowds of tourists begin arriving for Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer season. A "mini-nor'easter," reminiscent of two storms that devastated parts of Assateague last winter, has delayed the project for the past two days.

"We've had wind up to 20 knots and 10-foot waves," John Burns, chief ranger at the 37-mile-long barrier island park off Worcester County and Virginia's Eastern Shore, said yesterday. "At high tide, we only had about 20 yards between the dune line and the surf."

The 1940s-vintage ordnance was uncovered Feb. 9, south of the National Park Service ranger station and Assateague State Park. The 4-acre area has been cordoned off since then, said Doug Garman, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency responsible for the $61,000 removal.

Explosives experts from the corps' Huntsville, Ala., engineering support center, which supervises up to $50 million in munitions removal projects across the country each year, said they do not expect to find live explosives on Assateague. "Based on our research of what took place in the '40s and from our experience at other sites, it doesn't appear likely," said Glenn Earhart. "But you never know. We have to put the safety of the public first."

Portions of Assateague and other barrier islands along the East Coast were used as practice rocket bombing ranges by Navy and Army Air Forces pilots flying from Chincoteague Naval Air Station and Manteo Naval Air Station in North Carolina from 1944 to 1947. Rockets about 3 feet long and 2.5 inches to 5 inches in diameter were used to simulate attacks on submarines, said Dave Brandson, project manger for Human Factors Applications, the Pennsylvania company that will remove materials.

"What they did in most cases was to anchor barges offshore to simulate German submarines," he said. "The rockets were fired into the water as you would if you were trying to hit a submarine."

In 1994, the corps removed rocket fragments on Assateague's northern section without incident. The agency has surveyed several sites on the island since at least 1988, including the area that will be cleared of the military leftovers in the next two weeks, officials said. It was not until the material became visible in February that officials decided to remove it.

"When the ordnance was discovered on the northern area, none of the material contained any explosives, and this would appear to be the case this time," Garman said.

When the weather clears, workers will divide the southern site into 100-by-100-foot segments and survey it with sophisticated metal detectors, marking each hit with a plastic flag. Most of the material will be removed with a backhoe, officials said. If workers have reason to believe explosives are present in any part of the excavation, the spot will be shoveled clear.

Unexploded ordnance would be detonated on the spot, with little or no disturbance for anyone nearby because any blast would be cushioned with tons of beach sand, officials said.

After a report is completed in August, the corps will decide whether it is necessary to search for additional material offshore from Assateague, said Sheila Bloom, project manager for the corps' Baltimore regional office.

Pub Date: 5/13/98

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