Unexploded shells target at APG range

Experience: A man who helped guide weapons testing is now helping the Army find dangerous ordnance still in the ground and waterways.

November 09, 2003|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

John Conley, a retired range control operator at Aberdeen Proving Ground, remembers winter days when ice would form in B Tower's control booth, and the 80-foot trip down the steep steps when nature called.

From the booth high above the proving ground's restricted area, Conley -- who came to APG in 1952, after serving a four-year tour in the Air Force as an air traffic controller -- juggled a phone line and multiple radio frequencies for more than 30 years to keep air, ground and water testers from getting in harm's way during ammunition testing at APG, which has been one of the Army's premier testing grounds since it opened in 1917.

"You were like a one-arm paper hanger trying to keep up with things," said the 72-year-old Cecil County resident, laughing.

Over the years, Conley developed an institutional memory of APG range testing. And as the military struggles to find and clean up unexploded ordnance from those tests, it's the expertise of folks like Conley who are helping solve the riddle of the leftover munitions.

Unexploded ordnance -- rounds that have been fired but failed to detonate -- are the product of decades of testing during which tanks and other weapons fire at short- and long-range targets, sometimes from one peninsula to the other.

At APG, tens of thousands of rounds of the unexploded ordnance, commonly called UXO, have been found on eroding shorelines, burial pits and waterways since the Army began looking in earnest at pollution about a decade ago.

Daily discoveries are the norm, and no one knows how many millions of rounds remain in the waters, base officials say.

Since 1917, APG's mission has been to research and test military supplies, weapons and ammunition.

Edgewood Arsenal, a separate entity until the 1970s, tested chemical warfare material. What remains are federal Superfund priority cleanup sites, including old weapons dumps, burn pits and a mustard agent stockpile, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year in remediation.

Also left behind are the unexploded shells and bombs, some filled with inertmaterial such as molasses or rice; others with high explosives or chemical agents.

Steve Wampler, an APG environmental protection specialist who has been researching unexploded ordnance in the water for several years, said he invited Conley and several other APG testing personnel back in the late 1990s to help with a computer modeling project that Wampler and the Army Corps of Engineers hope can help predict where some of the rounds are and how they are decomposing.

"I've been here 23 years and had worked with Mr. Conley," Wampler said. "I wanted to rely on his expertise."

Conley, who retired in 1989 from APG, and three former colleagues spent months at a time in 1997 and 2000 at the Army Research Laboratory library, poring over firing reports from tests done on various types of ammunition.

They read nearly 730 linear feet of written reports from early test years, and viewed 100 reels of film on later reports.

"You have to be a detective to try to start to piece the puzzle together," Wampler said. "Some records were excellent; some weren't as conclusive."

Conley's team produced a pile of raw data that is being fed into a supercomputer at the Army Corps of Engineers Waterways Experiment Station in Vicksburg, Miss., where advanced modeling techniques can help researchers plot what could be happening to unexploded ordnance lurking in the rivers and bay.

The project, paid for with APG environmental compliance funds, is midway through a months-long analysis of Conley's data.

"They're only as good as the information you can load into them and the assumptions you can make," Wampler said of the modeling technique. "It gives you a place to start."

Will it allow them to capture every round? "Absolutely not, we'll never know that," said Wampler, noting the influence of tides, waves, weather and sediment on ordnance.

Wampler said the models will help zero in on areas for "ground truthing," where workers go in to see if they can find evidence in the sediment or water of what the models are showing.

They might be able to determine, for example, how a munition might decompose in the Bush River, as opposed to in the bay, where salinity is higher.

Adding to the picture are such factors as development, Wampler said. Sediment from land clearing runs off into Harford's rivers and blanket the bottoms. In the case of unexploded ordnance, that cover "could slow the breakdown of the munition," he said.

"We did fire a large number of rounds," Conley said, on the Aberdeen peninsula, between the Edgewood and Aberdeen areas. But over the years, he said, the number decreased as testing efficiency improved.

Hazards in those days included powder charges that "cooked off," and ignited prematurely, and mishaps with rounds veering off course, he said, recalling a day when inert rounds "shot off" and landed near full viewing stands at the nearby Ordnance School.

No one was hurt, he said, "but we fired three rounds before we got wind this was happening."

Many of the rounds fired at APG were inert, he said, but for researchers today, "the problem is you don't know which round [is dangerous] till you pick it up."

In Conley's range-operating days, ballistics reports for troops to use in the battlefield were devised by protractor and slide rule.

Test towers dotted not only the APG peninsula, but locations on the Eastern Shore as well, as far away as Kent Island.

Today, range control is conducted from basement offices on computer screens, and ballistics reports are dashed off in seconds by high-powered software.

Wampler said the same combination of supercomputing and records searches used in Aberdeen will next be employed in the Edgewood area. And he hopes to bring Conley back on board.

"He's just been a great asset," Wampler said. "He's probably the foremost expert on firing at Aberdeen."

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