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Collateral damages

While Butner families wait for the Army to clean up its bombs, a Pentagon task force blasts the funding shortage for unexploded ordnance removal

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At first glance, Amy and Wyatt Blalock's 10-acre homestead in rural Granville County appears to be a sweet spot for a young couple to live. Their house sits in a clearing on a hill surrounded by forests and streams. But look a little closer, and there are signs that the tranquility masks a potentially explosive problem. Beneath the carpet of fallen leaves, there are circles of depressed earth, many of them bomb craters.

When they bought the property in January 2002, the Blalocks say, they were unaware of the role their land had played for the former Camp Butner, an Army training base during World War II. After they started finding detonator parts, rusty shrapnel and intact metal shells, they discovered that they were living in the midst of a former artillery range.

"Now we feel like we're in a situation that we can't get out of, and our government doesn't care enough about our safety and our rights as citizens to help us," Amy Blalock says. "All we want is for them to come and get the bombs."

There are, according to recent surveys by Army contractors, plenty of bombs still waiting to be gotten. Camp Butner stretched across 40,000 acres in Durham, Granville and Person counties, and roughly half the base was used for artillery training. Not all of the munitions detonated on impact, and much unexploded ordnance (or UXO, as they're called) remains. Most of the target ranges passed back to private hands after the war, and the land around the town of Butner, once sparsely populated, is now hosting a residential development boom.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been assigned the monumental task of retrieving Camp Butner's old bombs. During the past year, Army contractor Parsons Engineering has scanned and cleared 26 acres, including 16 acres at Lakeview Estates, a small subdivision where an 8-year-old boy picked up a mortar shell on the edge of his yard in November 2001.

Other small cleanups are scheduled to begin this spring. "We are doing the best we can with the funding available," Col. John Alexander Jr., a regional Corps official based in Wilmington, told Butner-area residents at a public meeting on Dec. 16, 2003. But the bottom line is that the Corps' own estimates indicate the funding falls far short of what is needed. The roughly $4 million presently allotted for the job will fund only a third of the necessary bomb removal, the estimates say. The rest, residents have been told, will have to wait on additional funding from the Defense Department.

With the Pentagon's annual budget now pushing $380 billion, an extra $8 million for the former Camp Butner might not seem like much. But new high-tech weapons systems and costly foreign missions like the war in Iraq are making it harder than ever to secure funds for military cleanups at home, and Butner is just one of hundreds of sites competing for a piece of what critics call a woefully small budget for ordnance removal.

At present, the Defense Department spends roughly $200 million per year on UXO cleanup in the United States. "In the grand scheme of military priorities, it's not on the front burner," says Aimee Houghton, the Washington, D.C.-based associate director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, a nonprofit research group that focuses on military cleanups. "There can be a tendency within the Department of Defense to say, 'Well, we're not going to spend money on cleanup that we could be spending on weapons.'"

But now, Houghton notes, it's not just property owners and public interest groups that are bemoaning the scant funding for getting the bombs out of backyards. The problem is highlighted in a new report by the Defense Science Board Task Force on Unexploded Ordnance, a group of military and private sector experts that advises Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The report, which was released at an annual defense environmental conference in December, notes that "this is, by any measure, a problem of massive scale in land area." The Pentagon is conducting a national survey of former training grounds in the United States, and the preliminary estimates indicate that at least 1,400 sites likely contain explosives. Combined, their land mass adds up to an estimated 10 million acres.

The task force heard widely varying estimates on what it will cost to clean up the county's UXO, from $12 billion to $50 billion, before reaching its own "low-side estimate" of $20 billion. The current budget "is a very small expenditure against this problem," the report says. "$200 million per year funding applied to a tens of billions of dollars problem implies that the DoD gives this issue low priorityÉ. That low priority was evident to the task force throughout the study. It is also evident to many of the 'stakeholders' in the UXO issue (the local citizens, the state regulators, environmental groups), who justifiably see the DoD's total effort on UXO cleanup as unresponsive."

The task force recommended, in equally strong terms, that the Defense Department immediately double its cleanup budget and take other significant steps toward getting a grip on the problem.

The report's frank conclusions could become ammunition in the hands of civilians who are pushing for better cleanup funding. "If I were a citizen of Camp Butner," Houghton says, "I would arm myself with this report and go straight to my political representative and tell them that this is a message we've been trying to get across to you, and here's an independent task force that says the same thing." Since the Defense Department has proved unwilling to request the necessary funds, she says, it will take a commitment from Congress to make ordnance cleanups a priority.

"Camp Butner is kind of a bellwether for these UXO sites across the country," Houghton adds, given the rising number of housing developments on former range lands. "It's a very compelling argument for making funding of UXO cleanup a front and center issue, because there are a lot more Camp Butners out there waiting to happen. And it's much harder to deal with ordnance and constituent [chemical] contamination once those housing developments are in place than before they're in place."

The Blalocks' house is already in place, of course. And because of the tight budget for the Camp Butner cleanup, only the three acres of their property that are not forested will be searched and cleared of UXO. That doesn't sit well with the couple, because last April Wyatt stepped on an unexploded shell in the woods not far from the house. (Fortunately, it didn't go off, and a bomb squad from Fort Bragg was able to safely retrieve and detonate it.)

"We want them to clear our yard, but we also want all the property cleared," Amy Blalock says. "We want to know that no matter where we go on our property, we'll be OK."

It could be decades before civilians endangered by ordnance have reason to feel completely safe, according to recent findings by another government agency. In a report released in January, Congress' General Accounting Office estimated that if the funding stays at its present level, clearing the country's known UXO sites could "take from 75 to 330 years to complete."

Meanwhile, the Blalocks say they're stuck, since they hold no hopes of selling a piece of property that's embedded with bombs. "One of the reasons we bought it is that when we have children, we wanted lots of land so they'll have plenty of room to run and play," Amy says. "By the time this is taken care of, our children will be dead and gone." EndBlock

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