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Explosive debris in Hernando from WWII era get attention

The Army Corps of Engineers has spent years locating and clearing potentially lethal ordnance from a WWII range in northwest Hernando.

MAURICE RIVENBARK | Times (2007)

The Army Corps of Engineers has spent years locating and clearing potentially lethal ordnance from a WWII range in northwest Hernando.

Slightly obscured by the Army Corps of Engineers' bureaucratic language is a familiar message:

During World War II, a 10,200-acre slab of northwestern Hernando County was used as a training grounds called the Brooksville Turret Gunnery Range.

Some of the mortar shells, rockets and bullets fired by soldiers may still be buried in the ground, and the corps will conduct a "Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study . . . to determine what type of contamination may be present from past military activities and where it may be located."

This was all in a letter sent last week to about 8,000 residents in and around Royal Highlands and the High Point and Brookridge retirement communities. And, in a way, that's great.

We're lucky to have an Army that does its duty and cleans up after itself, at least on the home front. (It hasn't been quite so diligent in, for example, Cambodia, which is still littered with vast numbers of our unexploded Vietnam-era bombs.)

But if you also think this whole thing is taking awhile, you are correct. In 1997, I wrote my first story about a program to remove munitions from World War II-era training grounds — in this case mustard gas canisters supposedly buried at the Hernando County Airport, which began life as a U.S. Army airfield.

The discussion, planning and actual digging (really, a lot of the first two and not that much of the third) had all been wrapped up a mere six years later, at a cost of $1.2 million. The corps found zero canisters of toxic gas, but did recover "a lot of scrap wire, various pieces of metal debris and the grille off an old car," the project manager told me.

The first notification to homeowners in the old gunnery range went out in 1998, just one year after the corps started talking about the phantom mustard gas.

There was a $2 million removal operation a couple of years later to make room for a stretch of the Suncoast Parkway and an $800,000 study finished in 2002 to determine where most of the shells were.

Then, four years later, the corps really kicked into gear and by 2007 had removed more than 280 old explosives — 54 of which were still live — in the first of a two-phase, $7.1 million cleanup.

Near the end of the less-productive second phase, in 2008, it sounded as though, finally, we could be reasonably sure a stray poke with a shovel wouldn't activate a vintage explosive.

Nobody said anything about yet another phase of the cleanup, but apparently that is what's in the works.

Previously, the agency just scanned the areas closest to the range's firing line, but federal guidelines call for one more search just to make sure all 10,200 acres — even the outer fringes — are free of explosives, a corps spokeswoman said Monday.

There is no word yet how much this will cost or how long it will take. But based on past experience, my guess is, respectively, a good deal and quite a while.

Sure, we should be grateful we live in a country that takes seriously our safety, or at least the threat of lawsuits and public relations disasters.

But wouldn't the federal government have a better reputation with taxpayers if it operated with more speed, efficiency and clarity? And am I out of line to point out that the last of these shells was fired before many gray-haired recipients of the corps' letter had even been born?

Explosive debris in Hernando from WWII era get attention 05/03/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 8:31pm]
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