APG working to defuse hidden explosives issue

Test site for improving underground detection

October 17, 2002|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

Aberdeen Proving Ground unveiled a first-of-its-kind test site yesterday that will help develop better methods to detect unexploded munitions left after testing - a pervasive and dangerous problem for the Department of Defense that could cost tens of billions of dollars to clean up.

The $1.5 million test site, jointly funded by several defense agencies, will allow the military to work with private companies to find safer, less expensive methods of differentiating between unexploded ordnance, or UXO, and other metallic objects found underground.

While detection of underground metallic objects has improved significantly in the past decade, "the problem we have is we can't discriminate," said Jim Arnold, a divisional chief with the Army Environmental Center.

When "anomalies," as the underground objects are called, are detected several feet underground, "we don't know if it's a piece of ordnance or a ball of wire."

At APG's Lauderick Creek munitions removal site in the Edgewood area, 13,156 anomalies have been excavated - but 169 have been ordnance or related items, according to base officials.

Private companies will go to the APG site, and to a second site scheduled to open at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona in the spring, to try methods such as Global Positioning Systems to search for unexploded ordnance.

The sites are planted with inert rounds, filled with wax or concrete, and feature moguls, woods, marshes and other topographical challenges. Data collected will help develop standard detection methods to use at different sites, Arnold said.

"I think it can be a good performance measure," said Aimee R. Houghton, associate director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, adding that unexploded ordnance "is one of the largest environmental problems the Department of Defense has."

She said removing unexploded ordnance could cost well over $30 billion. "That's just the removal of ordnance items," she said. "That doesn't include [related] contamination. Once you get into ground water, it becomes a whole different ballgame."

The unexploded ordnance problem is particularly keen at former defense sites turned over to public use.

Robert DiMichele, spokesman for the Army Environmental Center, said thousands of the sites across the United States "have turned into just about anything you can think of," from residential subdivisions to business parks to playing fields.

Awareness of the problem first sprang to national attention nearly 20 years ago, when two California boys were killed after they came in contact with unexploded ordnance found behind their homes, which were built on a former military site.

According to the Defense Science Board, which advises the Defense Department, unexploded ordnance affects at least 1,500 sites in the United States, involving about 15 million acres.

Much is unknown about the ordnance, DiMichele said, such as what kinds of munitions are in the ground and whether they are live or not.

This figure does not include unexploded ordnance in the nation's waterways. At APG alone, according to a report released in the 1970s, about 20 million rounds of UXO are in the waters surrounding the base.

Ted Henry, a member of the APG Restoration Advisory Board, which monitors environmental issues, said the group welcomes the opening of the site.

"UXO is a very high priority because of the risk to the public," he said, noting the growth of neighborhoods along the base's boundary, as well as boaters who can approach unexploded ordnance on shorelines and in the water. "It will remain an issue for" the Restoration Advisory Board.

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