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Before exit, Army cleans ordnance from Fort Monroe
Chemistry, physics, geology, history: Cleaning up this military post encompasses those subjects and more.
The Army is due to leave the fort in 2011. Before it does, it must dig up buried explosives and fix contaminated spots. That means taking into account Fort Monroe's history as a bastion of coastal defense, then as an artillery school, before its evolution into one of the Army's premier think tanks.
Three of the biggest potential problems on the 570-acre post include a former landfill, the moat encircling the old stone fort, and the former medical/dental clinic, where mercury and radioactive traces may have leached into the soil. Two low-profile, Navy-owned buildings near the marina complete the list of possible hot spots.
Maps and photos show where many artillery batteries, cannons and gun emplacements were located, and from there, physicists can calculate where ordnance would have landed.
Robin Mills, director of public works at Fort Monroe, said the cleanup should be easier than at bases such as Fort Ord, Fort Pickett and Fort McLellan.
"This was a training base," she said. "They didn't get a ton of live ordnance, and those they got, they fired."
Mills said the Army spent the past two years examining potential problems. The standard is addressing environmental degradation that poses an imminent threat or human health concern, Mills said.
Three of four spots might require limited clean up: a former lumber-storage area where elevated levels of copper were found; a spot where pesticides were stored; and mercury contamination near the old medical/dental clinic. Most of those clean ups would require removing a truckload or two of dirt, she said.
The estimated cost of the environmental clean up is significantly lower than first imagined. After the Department of Defense announced in 2005 that it would close Fort Monroe, the Army estimated that the clean up could reach $240 million. Now, the worst-case scenario tops out at $100 million. It's possible the bill will be closer to $70 million, Mills said.
The reduction comes from eliminating wide swaths of the Chesapeake Bay for environmental clean up. At their greatest range, Fort Monroe's guns could reach almost to the Eastern Shore, meaning everything in between the guns and their farthest reaches - about 30,000 acres - could have been searched for unexploded ordnance.
This week, contractors worked to calibrate the instruments they'll use to search for "buried treasure" on land, including cannonballs, anti-aircraft rounds and artillery shells. On a grassy field outside a small self-storage facility, employees of ARM Group, Inc. walked square paths with odd looking equipment: a magnetometer and an electromagnetic meter.
Both are used in digital geophysical mapping - a higher-tech version of what folks with metal detectors do along the seashore. Walk, scan, and listen for indications a metal object might be buried nearby.
It records the data so experts can later determine whether an object is metallic and man-made, or something found in nature, such as a rock containing trace metals. If the signature indicates a big enough man-made object, someone will dig it up.
"Everything gets dug out by hand," Robert Reali, Fort Monroe's BRAC environmental coordinator, said this week. "There's no way to do it gently with a machine."
Most objects dug up Wednesday and Thursday were innocuous: a corroded battery, a railroad spike, a screen-door spring. A few other objects, ruddy with rust, looked as if they could have been "frag," Reali said - a fragment from an object that broke apart when it exploded.
The real treasure the ARM employees sought this week was buried deliberately, like an Easter egg hunt for geeky adults. Reali explained that they "hid" metallic objects mimicking the profiles of anti-aircraft shells and cannonballs, to make sure technicians could recognize the digital signatures of items they expected to find. (A high school track-and-field shot subbed in for the cannonball; 3-inch-wide metal tubes represented anti-aircraft rounds.)
There has been some disagreement about just how far out the Army should go into the water looking for unexploded ordnance.
"Our concern has to be risk to human health based on activities planned," Mills said.
It's not clear yet what all those activities will be. Those who foresee the fort becoming a popular venue for future outdoor recreational activities want to make sure the cleanup is as thorough as possible.
Reali said the Army will survey the shore that encircles Fort Monroe between 2 feet and 5 feet deep at mean low tide. That will be done by a diver with a hand-held metal detector scanning the Bay floor.
Ian Duke Wilson, an ARM geophysicist, has worked at other military bases - but none as old as Fort Monroe. He hopes the site will yield new finds for him.
"I haven't found a cannonball yet," said Wilson.
Kate Wiltrout, (757) 446-2629, email@example.com