The mission to investigate and remove World War II-era chemical warfare materiel suspected to be buried in 17 sites at Redstone Arsenal has reached a new milestone as Huntsville Center’s Chemical Warfare Design Center prepares to lead fieldwork at the post’s 10th such site.
The sites were identified by Alabama’s regulatory authority in 2010 for remediation as part of the federal government’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. This remediation includes investigation of these 17 sites and, as a required interim measure, removal of any discovered chemical warfare materiel.
As the Army’s executing agency for chemical warfare materiel responses, the Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville’s Chemical Warfare Design Center, has been providing support to the Garrison Installation Restoration Program by managing the mission at these sites since 2010, during which time the center and contractor APTIM have investigated 262 test pits, recovered more than 2,200 conventional munition remains and more than 15,000 pounds of munition debris.
The ordnance in question originated from the U.S., Great Britain, Germany and Japan, and was at Redstone during and after the war for reworking and demilitarization. When the war ended, the goal of these operations shifted to ordnance disposal.
“After World War II, the approved practice for disposal of munitions and items like this was to bury them or to create trenches and pits and blow them up and then bury the remains – and it was an approved practice then,” Ashley Roeske, project manager with Huntsville Center’s Chemical/Biological Warfare Materiel Division, said.
“I think they were following the best science that they knew at the time,” Col. John Hurley, Huntsville Center commander, said. “Now that we’ve got better analytical tools and better knowledge about how these things work, we understand how we’ve left things isn’t necessarily as sustainable as it could be.”
Starting in the late 1960s there was a renewed concern about the risk these disposal methods posed to the environment and to public health and safety. Since the 1990s, the U.S.’s policy on chemical weapons has been to eliminate all recovered chemical warfare materiel, according to a 2012 report from the Committee on Review of the Conduct of Operations for Remediation of Recovered Chemical Warfare Materiel from Burial Sites.
According to the same report, the Army has safely destroyed more than 90 percent of its legacy chemical weapons and chemical warfare materiel from the World War II and Cold War eras.
Hurley, joined by Huntsville Center Program Director Albert “Chip” Marin, took a tour of the site Jan. 19 to see operations on the 7-acre site at Test Area 1. These operations occur at night to minimize disruption to normal installation operations, including daytime range tests.
The leaders’ visit included observing site-specific training, which teams are required to undergo before embarking on intrusive fieldwork. The two weeks of training includes practicing with remote-controlled excavators on a nearby site mockup and running through a variety of scenarios and decontamination procedures.
At this site, as with the other 16, teams have the potential of finding both conventional munitions, such as mortars and artillery, and chemical agents, such as nitrogen mustard blister agent and tabun nerve agent. Since field work began in 2016, teams have not encountered any chemical warfare materiel.
Roeske said when they do find something, the teams are prepared.
“We’ve been very proactive about considering every situation that we can possibly think of,” Roeske said. “So if we find something, that’s what we’re there to do, and we do have the contingencies in place to handle that.”
The safety measures in place are numerous, Roeske said, including continuous air monitoring for chemical agents, the full-time presence of an ordnance and explosives safety specialist, daily safety briefings, regular status updates to the site’s command post and strict accountability procedures.
“In addition to site setup, teams check their exclusion zones and make sure that they have marked their exclusion zones, and that there is nobody from the public or who’s not essential who is within those exclusion zones,” Roeske added. “They constantly check them throughout the work day. Along with that, they coordinate with the installation’s emergency operation center.”
The next step for this site is the pre-operational survey.
“That’s a team of inspectors who come out and check our readiness: ‘Are we doing everything in accordance with our plans?’” Roeske said.
After the survey, and only once approval is secured, intrusive investigations begin. During this interim-measures phase, teams must safely assess and remove munitions. Fieldwork on the sites under the current contract are projected to last through fiscal 2019, and fieldwork on the remaining sites for this entire interim-measures phase is projected to last through fiscal 2042.
The timeline for the corrective-measures phase is much longer, but Hurley said he is already happy with the center’s success.
“It’s fantastic that the Corps of Engineers – Huntsville Center – can be part of that mission,” he said.
“I’ve done environmental remediation in different places for about 12 years now, and folks are truly satisfied and fulfilled when they get to work on and see the results of an environmental remediation project. It’s great to build a building and see a finished product, and there’s a certain happiness in an engineer in that, but when you know there’s an area that’s not safe for people – and you go in and remediate that area, and that area can then be reused – there’s a tremendous satisfaction from that.”