Old buried bombs have a way of resurfacing inconveniently

Nearly 2,300 U.S. sites are thought to have dangerous munitions

May 07, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

When a construction equipment operator discovered aging, unexploded bombs near the Harbor Tunnel on Wednesday, Baltimore's urban present bumped into its military past.

The 12 high-power explosives - vestiges of a time when the city flexed its industrial muscles - are representative of a potentially dangerous anachronism that devils many similar places in America.

There are nearly 2,300 sites nationwide that are suspected of harboring old military munitions, according to the federal government's General Accounting Office. And 61 of those are in Maryland - not including the most recent discovery near Childs Street in the southern reaches of the city.

As has been the case in many places where antiquated ordinance has been found, Baltimore's bombs were discovered at a remote site with a military history: an old shipyard where Navy ships used to be scrapped.

"The big problem is a lot of these places were far away or not used. But now they're open to the public and it's a problem," said Gary Thompson, a City Council member in Rancho Santa Margarita, a Southern California town that lies on a former military testing site.

Federal, state and county officials are working to clear unexploded munitions from Rancho Santa Margarita in southern Orange County and have found nearly 30 live rounds, mainly small testing explosives, since beginning the project in 2000. Residents there are told not to wander off park trails and to report any bombs to authorities.

"Don't touch them. They could blow off your foot," Thompson tells citizens.

Ordnance is scattered throughout the country but is most common in California, Texas and Florida. In almost all cases, the federal government is responsible for cleaning up the weapons. The Department of Defense estimates it will cost $8 billion to $35 billion and take decades to clear all of the sites.

Some have criticized those estimates as too low and say that the federal government has not done enough to clean up military sites.

"The discovery in Baltimore highlights the need for more attention and more resources to go for both cleaning up [military ordnance] and getting a better handle on how many sites are contaminated," said U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, a Democrat from Oregon, in a statement yesterday.

The bombs found in Baltimore were taken to Aberdeen Proving Ground and buried or detonated.

Many of the best-known finds of munitions involve former military bases or testing grounds, but the dumping of explosives near ports is also common, experts say. Live ammunition was found at the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, Calif., and at bases near San Francisco and near the Massachusetts Military Reservation in Cape Cod.

"It's dangerous to move; it's dangerous to explode," said Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, a group that monitors cleanups at military sites. "They do what seems to make sense."

And that included tossing the ammunition overboard or burying it, he said.

Siegel said most military bases were built in remote areas, but as residential development spread near or onto the installations, the likelihood of stumbling upon buried explosives increased.

Military sites "used to be in the middle of nowhere, but there's no middle of nowhere anymore," Siegel said.

In Rancho Santa Margarita, most of the shells have been discovered in a park at the edge of town that had only been sparsely developed until recently. "It's within the last 10 years that the area has been opened up to the public," Thompson said.

Once ammunition is discovered, the results can be tragic.

In 1983, three young boys were playing with a live World War II mortar shell in northern San Diego. One boy banged the shell on a rock, detonating it and killing himself and a friend. The third child was seriously injured.

Baltimore officials were taking no chances of a similar incident yesterday after the bombs were discovered when a construction worker began to clear scrap metal from the site.

Even though none of the bombs had a live detonator, the site was sealed and nearby highways were closed for a time as the explosives were taken away.

Local officials said they weren't sure how long it could take to declare the area safe.

If the cache of bombs is limited to the 12 already discovered, "you could get that cleaned up in a short period of time," said Brad McCowan, program manager for the Ordnance and Explosive Center of Expertise, a branch of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Huntsville, Ala.

Where bombs lurk

A partial list of sites where unexploded military munitions have been found in Maryland and throughout the country, according to local and federal government officials.

Fort Ritchie, Washington County, Md.

Aberdeen Proving Ground, Harford County, Md.

Fort Meade, Anne Arundel County, Md.

Spring Valley, Washington, D.C.

Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo, Calif.

Massachusetts Military Reservation, Cape Cod

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