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Blasts from the Past

Aging bombs in Butner's backyard and newly leaked EPA documents ignite concerns about unexploded ordnance.


Danny and Kimberly Cash thought they had found an ideal spot to settle and raise their six children. When they said their wedding vows at a gazebo outside their new home in 1997, it was, for both of them, a second try at marriage, and it seemed just the place to start a new life: The Cashes were the first occupants of Lakeview Estates, a modest but scenic subdivision a few miles north of Butner. "We moved out there to keep our kids kind of isolated from what we do in our profession," Kimberly explains; both she and Danny are Durham police officers. "We pound the streets in Durham, so we didn't want to live there, too."

For a time, the home in the country seemed to fit the bill. There was room for the kids to roam around fields, forests and waterways, to grow up safely away from the bustle of the Bull City. But then, in 1999, there came a subtle warning sign of potential problems when two three-foot wide sinkholes opened up on their property. The Cashes asked around, but no one offered an alarming explanation, so they paid the holes little mind.

"It really was our dream house," Kimberly says, "a foundation for our family." All that changed on the afternoon of Nov. 11, 2001, when her son Taylor hollered, "Look what I found!"

Taylor, then eight, had been raking leaves on the edge of the yard when he heard his rake scrape metal, and picked up something he'd never seen before. He was scurrying with it toward the house when his 10-year-old brother, James, yelled a warning. Taylor dropped the item on the grass, a few feet from the concrete driveway.

The metal object, the Cashes would soon learn from the military, was exactly what it looked like: A live bazooka round, with part of its fins and all of its payload intact. Local authorities called Fort Bragg, which promptly dispatched a bomb squad. When the soldiers arrived, they donned protective gear, wrapped the round in a Kevlar blanket, carried it to their vehicle and drove off at a crawl to the nearby National Guard post. There, they used explosives to detonate the round.

Back at the Cash house, the questions came in waves. Danny and Kimberly fired off e-mails to the Defense Department, she says, asking: "Is this an isolated event? Should we be concerned? Can you come out here and have a look at our site? What should we do?" When answers were not forthcoming, the Cashes went into investigative mode, and started devoting their rare spare moments to finding the truth about Butner's thinly buried secret: unexploded ordnance (or UXO, in military shorthand).

Around Butner, this was anything but an isolated incident. The bazooka round in the yard, the Cashes learned, was one of thousands of pieces of UXO that are believed to lie on and beneath the surface of their community. That's because the family's homestead sat on part of the Army's former Camp Butner, a 40,000-acre, World War II-era training facility that hosted 15 munitions ranges in its heyday. Sixty years ago, infantry units pounded the soil here to prepare for fighting the Nazis. To practice urban warfare, the Army even built a mock German village, the bullet-ridden and cratered remains of which still sit just off a public road north of Butner.

When the troops departed to liberate Europe, they left behind explosive remnants in the Carolina countryside. The effected land straddles portions of Durham, Person and Granville counties, in a traditionally rural area that is one of the next frontiers of Triangle growth. Today, subdivisions are sprouting on the former bomb ranges.

"The bombs were there before we were there, but we were never told any of this information," Kimberly Cash says. "We didn't know the history." Now that they do know, the Cashes aren't sticking around to witness further discoveries. In October 2002, after additional munitions turned up in their neighborhood--including several more on their property--they decided to move.

"The stress level was way too high," she says. Suddenly their own yard was an off-limits danger zone, and "every time the kids would jump in the house, I was now nervous." Though they still have to make the mortgage payments, leaving Lakeview Estates seemed like the only thing to do. The family relocated to an apartment complex in Creedmoor, but they're still preoccupied by their bout with bombs, and still asking questions. Who, they wonder, is responsible for their plight? More directly, who, if anyone, is liable?

It's taken awhile to try to find out, but recently the Cashes, along with three of their former neighbors, hired a Raleigh law firm, Abrams & Abrams, to look into potential litigation. Margaret Abrams, a partner at the firm, declined to discuss the matter, citing the firm's policy of not commenting on pending cases. Her clients say the attorneys have told them they have legitimate and actionable legal grievances--though not, perhaps, against the government.

The Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for cleaning up former military sites, is currently conducting a multimillion dollar spot survey of the 26,000 acres that are most likely to contain UXO, and recently oversaw an ordnance cleanup, down to 6 inches beneath the surface, on 26 acres in and around Lakeview Estates. During the cleanup they discovered and disposed of six additional explosive rounds.

But still the military has accepted no culpability in the matter. Corps officials note that the Army, which transferred most of its land back to private hands after the war, in most cases did so only after adding deed restrictions that forbade digging and developing. On many properties, however, farmers and developers ignored the restrictions, and over the years, as the lands were sold and re-sold to new owners, the warnings were dropped from replacement deeds. To complicate matters further, some at-risk areas--including the lots at Lakeview Estates--never carried the deed restrictions, despite the fact that they were littered with ordnance. (The property that is now Lakeview, it appears, sat just next to, but not directly on, a target range.)

The Cashes and some of their former neighbors think that the man who sold them their land, Jim Willett, of Willett Investments, should shoulder some blame. They say that Willett, who lives next door to Lakeview Estates on a 50-acre plot his family has owned for decades, kept information about the ordnance hazards to himself, though they believe he'd known about them for years.

Not so, says Willett, though he qualifies his denial a bit. "I've never seen a bomb," Willett told The Independent in a telephone interview last week. "When the fields were cleared for pastures for cows and horses, you'd occasionally come across some ordnance, some real decayed bazooka or something of that nature. But they [the Army] come out here and found some and they took care of it, they exploded them. They come out and cleaned it up completely, and gave us a clean bill of health." Besides, Willett says, "We purchased the land just like any other land, with a clean deed and a clean title. I was unaware that there was any ordnance, any more than what's on my property."

The recent furor at Lakeview is much ado about nothing, Willett says, expressing a view that is not uncommon in a community where scattered munitions--duds and live ones--have been a fact of life for decades. "There is no risk," he says flatly. "I don't know that anybody's ever been killed, I don't know of anyone who's ever been hurt. I guess the biggest hazard we have out here is deer. I hit one last night."

Miraculously, there has been only one injury, and no deaths, reported from the many mishaps with Camp Butner's leftover ordnance. But the lurking risks remain real, here and at hundreds of other retired ranges, as civilians increasingly find themselves on former military lands that were not sufficiently cleared. The scenario can be deadly: In 1983, two eight-year-old boys in San Diego found a 37-mm shell in their subdivision--which, like Lakeview Estates, was built on a World War II artillery range--and as they played with it, the shell exploded, killing both boys.

The Cashes have several news reports about the incident in their files. Reading them, they're reminded of how close the family came to experiencing a similar tragedy. In addition to the shell Taylor raked up, in August 2002, Army contractors found another shell of the same type while searching Lakeview Estates. It was located three inches beneath the surface of the Cashes' yard, 30 feet from their front door. Like the one in San Diego that proved fatal, and like the one Taylor discovered, the round was still live.

A 'sleeping giant'
Due in large part to cases like that of the Cash family, a long-unnoticed homeland security threat with leftover ordnance is finally getting some attention. Similar problems have been encountered in dozens of states, and the number of danger sites suggests that civilian sprawl and former bomb ranges will remain a troublesome mix for the foreseeable future. The Defense Department has issued rough estimates that there are already some 1,500 former defense sites in the United States that require cleanup of dangerous materials, and that ordnance could linger at some 16 million acres of old training grounds.

"UXO contamination is the sleeping giant of the military cleanup program," says Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, a California-based research group that serves as a clearinghouse for military pollution information. "It's basically been a local story," he says, but one that is unfolding in hundreds of localities across the country. "Very rarely does someone try to put it together nationally."

Siegel and other experts say there is a new groundswell of concern brewing around the issue, however, as concerned individuals and interest groups, and even some government agencies, are taking steps to raise national awareness. Last November, the issue received a rare spate of media coverage when Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that supports government whistleblowers, released scathing Environmental Protection Agency documents about the Pentagon's mishandling of the UXO threat. Among them was an internal briefing paper, prepared in the summer of 2002, which warned the EPA's enforcement director that "cleanup of UXO on military ranges has the potential to be the largest environmental cleanup program ever to be implemented in the United States."

The document cited the military's "failure ... to comply with existing regulations" concerning ordnance cleanup. Further, it decried the "disturbing trend for the [military] services and the Corps of Engineers to limit their responses or take ill-advised short-cuts to limit costs." Another document, from April 2000, described an EPA survey of 206 former ranges, reporting that the ranges "pose potentially significant threats to human health and the environment." Many of the dangerous sites, the document noted, are now occupied and trafficked by civilians: "Although most ranges are in rural or remote areas, or are near small towns, there are residences in close proximity to most of the ranges. In addition, 33 percent are on or near surface water, wetlands, or floodplains, thus potentially exposing ecological receptors and making cleanup more difficult. UXO has been found at most of the ranges in this survey, and at 50 percent of the ranges the presence of chemical or biological weapons is known or suspected."

Following up on the publicity of the leaked documents, Sen. Jon S. Corzine (D-N.J.), one of Congress' leading voices on ordnance cleanup issues, pressed for the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works to hold hearings to assess the threat. "It is the government's responsibility to examine the status of these cleanups and to ensure that they proceed quickly and safely," he said. "There is no excuse for taking shortcuts when it comes to protecting the health and safety of Americans from hazardous environmental risks."

Hearings would help, but what is most desperately needed, cleanup advocates say, is definitive data on the scope of the problem. As the EPA's assessments noted, official estimates have thus far been hazy, because, despite years of prodding by Congress, the Defense Department has yet to produce an inventory of its former training sites. Hard numbers should finally become available this spring, as the Pentagon is slated to complete a long-delayed, comprehensive listing of the places where training left explosives behind.

That inventory, more than anything else, could convince politicians and their constituencies of the size and severity of the problem at hand. So says Jeff Swanson, a UXO expert for the Interstate Technology Research Council, which trains and consults state and federal employees involved in military cleanup projects. "If there's a watershed now," Swanson says, referring to the recent wave of interest in ordnance contamination, "the flood is going to be when this listing comes out, and local communities find out, first of all, that they're living next to problem sites that they didn't know about, and second, that there is not sufficient planning or resources to clean them up and make them safe."

More worry than cleanup
After it has identified all the risk areas, the Defense Department will face the gargantuan task of picking priority cleanup sites and funding years of survey and clearance operations. Based on its track record so far, the military has given ordnance cleanup advocates little hope that the process will be quick or thorough. But despite its shortcomings in assessing the problem, the Defense Department has begun to take some concrete, if incomplete, steps toward addressing it.

The department's budget for "UXO response" in fiscal year 2003 is $252 million. While most of that will go to current survey and cleanup efforts like the one near Butner, roughly $20 million will be spent on research and development of munitions detection and cleanup technologies, which have been found lacking during many recent cleanups. Among the more promising approaches introduced in recent years is aerial detection of buried ordnance. Helicopter-mounted metal-detection gear, for example, was developed to assist cleanups of huge training ranges in Alaska. And several Pentagon-funded research projects are looking for ways to track and mitigate groundwater contamination on and near former ranges--a worry above and beyond the threat of the old bombs exploding. There's even a "green munitions" campaign underway to develop non-toxic ammunition and training ordnance.

The advancement of such technologies, however, has done little to stem the worries in communities like Butner, where the slow flow of cleanup funds has left many residents angry. A key problem, say experts from both inside and outside the government, is that the Corps of Engineers' cleanup budget falls far short of its needs.

"If you talk to the Army, they say it's going to take them between 70 and 200 years to address the [UXO] problem at formerly used defense sites," Siegel says. "It's totally inadequate. By the time you deal with the high-priority sites, there's hardly any other money around to address the other sites. It's not the fault of the Corps people in the field, or the Corps people at headquarters, who say there's not enough money. It's people at the Defense Department and Congress who won't put enough in to do the job."

Penny Schmitt, spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers branch in Wilmington, which is overseeing the work at the former Camp Butner, makes a very similar case when asked why it's taken so long to begin the partial cleanup there. "The principal factor in how fast we can work is funding," she says. "We can only get work done when we have money. There are something more than a thousand sites nationwide that need to be addressed, and we have spent more than $3 million at this site. There's competition for those funds, and the funding is scarce."

Frankie Vos, a retired nurse who lives in Lakeview Estates on property adjoining the Cashes' with her husband and her elderly parents, says she thinks the government's skimping is putting her family at risk. "They're putting a price on our safety," she says. "You're talking about people's lives, people out here who have children and don't even know about this. What's a life worth?"

Denying the danger
The history of the Camp Butner site suggests that military policies and budgets aren't the only reasons the former training grounds make for uneasy living grounds. Local civilians, as well, have played a role in overlooking, downplaying, and sometimes even denying the danger.

As it abandoned its training areas after the war, the military claimed it had done its best to clean up explosives. "Dedudding operations have recently been completed on the ranges at Camp Butner," the Army Corps of Engineers announced in an April 1950 press release. "Tons of practice missiles were gathered and disposed of and several thousand high explosives duds were destroyed in place. The duds were comprised of hand grenades, rifle grenades, rockets and Howitzer shells up to 240 millimeter. Any one of the duds could have caused serious injury or tragedy to the persons disturbing it." The release hinted that the bombs could long grace the Butner landscape. Thousands of acres were being sold back to private citizens, but with a major caveat: "There are several areas that will be disposed of with a restriction placed on them against sub-surface use. These areas received a heavy concentration of fire of high explosive shells and there is a great possibility of unexploded duds remaining underground."

In many cases, the warnings and restrictions went ignored. Throughout the 1950s and '60s, as farmers plowed into former range areas, several tractor blades were damaged when they struck and ignited buried bombs. Hikers and hunters came across hundreds of explosives, and many handled the items. One farmer later said that he'd chucked more than 70 rounds into a pile, without incident. There was a close call in the summer of 1958, when someone took a pile of scrap metal that included a mortar shell to Tom's Auto Supply in Oxford. When workers at the scrap yard melted the pile down, the shell exploded, sending flaming debris over neighboring buildings. No one was hurt, according to local news reports.

It wasn't until the 1970s that reports surfaced of an UXO casualty at Butner, and details of the incident are few. In 1976, a former game warden told the Durham Morning Herald about a hunter from Chatham County who had found a shell near Butner a few years before. The hunter, who is not named in the newspaper article, reportedly took the shell home, where it exploded, injuring his arm.

The prospect of such accidents kept the Camp Butner ranges on the military's radar long after World War II. Army demolition teams from Fort Bragg made annual visits until the late 1960s, and their reports indicate that they disposed of an average of 13 live explosives each year. But that, it appears, was more of a scattershot effort than a comprehensive plan for removing the old bombs, for many remained. So common were the UXO findings, potentially lethal items came to seem benign. People even displayed shell remnants on their mantelpieces and used them as doorstops, as though they were some kind of bizarre local folk art.

But the problem, while submerged in the local consciousness, keeps rearing its head. The 1983 deaths of the two boys in San Diego was a reminder of the genuine dangers. Shortly after that, the Defense Department began surveying selected sites thought to harbor similar risks. An April 1990 Corps of Engineers report on Butner affirmed that "ordnance is a major problem," and that former target zones rife with munitions "are not fenced or marked as dangerous areas."

Today, the dangers on a given property can be hard to gauge, given that many homeowners are living on contaminated lands with "clean" deeds, which had been prepared by title lawyers and insurers as the properties changed ownership over the years. And even many of those who are aware of the problem tend to minimize the dangers. That's understandable, says Frankie Vos, because discussion of buried bombs can hurt property values. Nonetheless, she thinks such people are making the wrong calculus. "Anybody dealing with real estate in this area is going to more than likely shrug it off," she says. "It's all about the dollar bill. I know some of the old-timers in the community will say, 'Well, it's always been here.' And I get so sick of hearing that, because it shouldn't be here. It shouldn't be anywhere."

Lives on hold
The Corps of Engineers' work at Butner is far from complete. At present, the Corps' contractor, Atlanta-based Parsons Engineering Science, is winding up work on an evaluation, using 200 statistical sampling plots, of more than 20,000 acres that may contain ordnance. In the 26 acres at Lakeview Estates, they're scanning the land again, this time using gear that should detect any suspect objects buried as low as four feet. To do similar in-depth surveys and cleanups elsewhere, the Corps will have to request and be granted additional Defense Department funds, a process that can take years.

Meanwhile, some residents living at nearby trouble spots say they're not getting the help they need to determine if their land is safe. Amy and Wyatt Blalock, a married couple in their thirties, bought a house a few miles north of Lakeview in January 2000. At the time, they say, they'd heard nothing about ordnance problems in the area, from the person who sold them the property or anyone else. Then, on Sept. 18, 2002, Wyatt was stepping out of his truck in the driveway when he turned his ankle on a cylindrical brass object. It turned out to be a detonator for a training round.

"So I got my brother-in-law's metal detector, because I wanted to sweep the yard," he says. "And within the first five minutes, I found a 155 mm shell, about two feet from the corner from one of our barns. It was 35 feet from our back door, and it was in the basketball court where [the previous owners'] kids were dribbling balls on top of it." The Army informed the Blalocks that the item was a white phosphorous shell, and strongly advised against looking for additional ordnance.

Despite such clear and present dangers, the Blalocks say, Corps of Engineers officials have told them they're not sure if or when the government will fund a cleanup of the site, given the budget constraints. "Now this is putting our whole life on hold," Wyatt says. "We had a lot of plans for the house and the land, and we don't want to proceed with that, if the place is not safe to live. And we were basically told that it's not safe to plant a flower garden."

"We're stuck," Amy adds. "We can't leave. I could not even look at myself in the mirror if I were to sell this house without disclosing it, like it was done to us."

"We sympathize," says Penny Schmitt, the Corps spokesperson in Wilmington, about complaints the Army is doing too little, too late. "This is something that really gets at people's sense of their security in their own homes. We can't do everything that people wish we could do, and we understand very much their wishes, but we have to work within the limitations of the resources that we have."

Lenny Siegel says that even as public awareness of the problem rises, the funding shortages that have plagued UXO cleanup efforts may well continue. "The Defense Department is of two minds," he says. "There are people on the inside who recognize the problem and really would like to see funding not only for the cleanup but for the research. And then there are people who want to use the money for other things. And particularly whenever it looks like we're going to war, it's easier to get money to create more problems than to solve them." EndBlock

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