Army continues massive base cleanup

Source: Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, MA), October 10, 2011
Posted on: http://envfpn.advisen.com

Just about a year ago, a monitoring well near the Bourne boundary of the Massachusetts Military Reservation showed levels of perchlorate six times the limit set by the state for safe drinking water.

To the public, the discovery came out of nowhere, but officials from the Army’s Impact Area Groundwater Study Program and environmental regulators say it demonstrates that appropriate safeguards are in place. They thought the plume from an area of Camp Edwards known as Demolition Area 1 was contained inside the base boundary, but the tests from monitoring wells proved otherwise.

Further study showed that a sliver of contaminated groundwater about the width of a tractor-trailer traveled underneath Route 28 to a neighborhood in the Pocasset Village of Bourne. Testing there in one neighborhood well, where the military had just gotten permission to sink a well, showed levels three times the acceptable limits.

The state Department of Environmental Protection considers levels above 2 parts per billion unsafe. One ppb is the equivalent of a half-teaspoon in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

“I wouldn’t characterize it as a complete surprise,” Gary Moran, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said. “They were required to do monitoring to make sure models were correct. In this case, the protective measures have worked.”

There is no immediate health risk because households in the neighborhood are on public drinking water supplies. Perchlorate, a contaminant found in fireworks and explosives, is known to adversely affect thyroid function, especially in small children.

Despite the discovery, Army cleanup officials and environmental regulators say it shows the constant monitoring of base contaminants is working at the Massachusetts Military Reservation where both the Army Impact Area Groundwater Study Program and Air Force Center for Engineering and the Environment are overseeing two separate, massive cleanups of plumes caused by decades of pollution.

It’s those testing wells and the computer modeling that gives both the military and regulators confidence that they’re on top of what’s going on 100 feet or more underground.

“It’s unlikely there are undetected plumes that will create exposure,” said Lynne Jennings, cleanup team manager for the federal Environmental Protection Agency. “Is there another big plume out there? No, I don’t think that’s the case.”

Within a matter of months, the Army had installed extraction wells and a portable treatment system for the leading edge of the Demo 1 plume in Bourne, Kent “Hap” Gonser, program manager for the Army cleanup, said in a July interview.

Gonser has since left the cleanup program, but led it through the process of finding treatment plans and getting regulatory approval for nearly 10 years. “We’re proud of the fact that we found the contamination and put a system in within six months,” he said.

Unlike the Air Force, which has all of its treatment systems in place, the Army, after getting a later start, just this year came to a final decision with regulators on how to deal with contamination in what is known as the Central Impact Area at Camp Edwards. Not only is there a plume beneath that 330-acre swath fouled by a toxic cocktail of perchlorate and Royal Demolition Explosives, or RDX, a known carcinogen, but the soil is littered with an estimated 4,000 to 9,000 unexploded munitions that make the cleanup more tricky and costly.

A combination of sandy soil and lots of rain forced perchlorate and RDX from those blasts deep into the groundwater, Gonser said. “The good deal is we’ve got plenty of water, but the bad deal is it’s easy to contaminate,” he said. “It’s also easy to clean up, but it takes time and money.”

Sharing resources

The Army cleanup is expected to last well into the middle of this century at an estimated overall cost of $450 million. Combined with the $850 million it will cost for the Air Force to complete its cleanup of fuel and solvent spills, the overall price tag to taxpayers once the water is cleaned will exceed $1.2 billion.

Though the Air Force pollution was mostly caused by solvents and fuel spills, the Army contamination was caused by decades of firing mortar rounds, bullets and testing weapons systems on firing ranges that began as the U.S. entered World War II. In the midst of the Central Impact Area is a path known as Tank Alley where artillery and mortar rounds were frequently shot at targets. To date, only one weapons manufacturer, Textron, has been held responsible for its role in fouling the base soil and water. In 2007, the company agreed to pay $8.75 million, a portion of which has been distributed by the state.

The Army is also dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s on remedial plans for areas on the base known as the J-2 and J-3 ranges — the last of the areas where a final remedy is not yet in place.

In large part, the Army learned from the Air Force that pumping the tainted water, putting it through a carbon treatment and reinjecting it into the groundwater was the best way to deal with the contamination. Where possible, they’ve also shared resources. The Army has used portable treatment systems that the Air Force was finished with and is using excess capacity in one of the treatment plants to clean some of the water from the Central Impact Area.

The process for getting final remedies in place is complicated. It usually requires doing a preliminary assessment, a site investigation, a remedial investigation, a feasibility study, and then remedial action, Gonser said. “So you have this long process that can take many years, even decades to go through,” he said. “The way we approached it is to try and do as much of it simultaneously and concurrently as possible.”

That meant working with regulators to determine interim remedies that would likely become the final solutions, with limited tweaks, once the paperwork was completed, Gonser said.

“It was the chicken-and-egg thing,” Jennings said. “We were trying to get them to be aggressive and taking action when it came to groundwater contamination.”

Where things got more complicated, Gonser and Jennings said, is how to deal with the Central Impact Area. This is one of those areas where the military and regulators differed, but the final outcome under consideration reflects a compromise.

The military had considered letting the plume attenuate, a natural process that dilutes the contamination over time, because they don’t expect the site to ever be used for anything other than military purposes. Regulators pushed for treatment and removal of some unexploded ordnances, also known as UXOs, to prevent future sources of contamination.

The plan, which includes extraction wells and treatment, went through the public hearing process this summer and regulators are taking into consideration public comments before signing off on what’s known as the record of decision. The EPA is keeping a close eye on whether more of the UXOs need to be removed from the site to prevent future contamination, Jennings said.

Protecting undeveloped land

Prevention has become a huge part of the culture at the military base. It was a forced change in the beginning with the cease fire instituted in 1997 by John Devillars, the EPA’s regional director, but has become a way of life for the four military commands — U.S. Coast Guard, National Guard, U.S. Air Force 6th Space Squadron and 102nd Intelligence Wing — that share the base.

Slowly, and with oversight from science advisers, community advisers and environmental experts governed by a memorandum of understanding entered into a decade ago, Guard soldiers have returned to shooting lead bullets at the base into specially-designed traps that capture the bullets and don’t allow toxins to leach into the soil. Recently, soldiers have returned to using simulated grenades — approved because they don’t contain any traces of perchlorate that are usually found in pyrotechnics.

“I think the protective measures in place are quite satisfactory and should prevent future problems,” said Larry Cole of Harwich, a member of the citizens advisory committee.

The memorandum of understanding was put into place to protect the 15,000 acres of undeveloped land on the base and to make sure that training of soldiers does not jeopardize the water supply or the habitat on the area known as the preserve.

The Guard and regulators have restored “transparency and trust,” Mary Griffin, commissioner of the state Department of Fish and Game, and chairwoman of the Environmental Management Commission, said. Griffin and the secretaries of the DEP and the Department of Conservation and Recreation, make up the Environmental Management Commission with Executive Director Mark Begley serving as their eyes and ears on the military base.

It was the commission that first questioned whether the use of tungsten bullets — a so-called green bullet once used for training at Camp Edwards and other installations across the country — were really protecting the environment. Use of the bullets was stopped in 2006 when it was determined that tungsten had made it into the groundwater.

“We found they weren’t as green as they purported to be,” Begley said.

Follow-up investigations have only ever found tungsten in one well and its origin isn’t clear, Gonser said. A well next to the one where it was detected on a firing range came back clean, he said.

“There’s no plume or contamination we’ve seen at any other places,” he said.

All across the country, the Army stopped using the “green bullets,” but working with the commission, the Guard was able to install the bullet traps and return to safely firing lead bullets, which had also been banned as part of DeVillars 1997 cease fire, Griffin said.

‘You don’t want to leave anything behind’

That’s a recent example of how the Environmental Management Commission’s oversight has worked cooperatively to come up with an alternative that protects the environment and allows the soldiers to do the types of training they require, Begley said.

The commission meets with the Guard on a quarterly basis where it receives updates on training and considers whether to allow the return of some weapons systems. Last year, for example, the commission added simulated grenades to a list of acceptable training munitions, but the Guard withdrew a request to use simulated artillery because they contained perchlorate, Begley said.

Meanwhile, the Guard’s Environmental and Readiness Center, with an annual budget of nearly $2 million that employs 18 full-time employees throughout the state, has worked to preserve the habitat for 37 rare and endangered species on the base. Natural resource officials for the Guard have done studies on Eastern box turtles, whippoorwills and the New England cottontail rabbit that flourish in the reservation’s pitch pine and scrub oak habitat, work that could ultimately keep the bunnies of the endangered list.

“We’ve learned a lot from them,” Griffin said. “It shows a real change in culture there.”

Maj. Shawn Cody, environmental program manager at Camp Edwards, said protecting the environment has become a natural part of a soldier’s training. “Environmental protection and stewardship is woven into the fabric of everything we do,” Cody said.

Soldiers are given an environmental checklist when they arrive for training that includes everything from how they should drive to what steps they should take if there’s an accidental spill of hazardous materials. Part of a soldier’s routine on the base these days includes making sure they put a drip pan under idle military vehicles and picking up pieces that fall to the ground after they shoot their guns during a training exercise — what they call “policing the brass.”

The job is made easier by working with a force that has recycling and environmental protection already ingrained in them, Cody said.

Among the initiatives underway at Camp Edwards to protect the environment is the use of mobile structures, instead of brick and mortar buildings, to ready soldiers for overseas combat, Cody said. The Guard is also looking into the use of copper bullets.

“We weave environmental protection into our training and even get it into a combat scenario,” Cody said. “We tell them, you don’t want to leave anything behind for the enemy to find out how many soldiers you have.”

The process for environmental oversight is working, Griffin and Begley said. “The public needs to be engaged in it and we all need to be vigilant,” Griffin said. “You can never assume it’s being taken care, but we’re working with good people.”

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