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Hunt on for old chemical arms at airport

For decades, federal officials have wanted to find out just how much unexploded ordnance, mustard gas and other chemical weapons soldiers left behind from their World War II training at what is now Hernando County Airport.

But it took the events of Sept. 11 for the federal government to provide money to pay for cleaning up chemical weapons buried at the former Brooksville Army Airfield and other defunct military installations across the country.

Now, private contractors and federal workers, under the auspices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, will begin an intensive study of the airport area to secure whatever weapons may be buried there before they fall into the wrong hands.

"It is probably the highest visibility chemical warfare site in the state of Florida," said Robert Bridgers, a Formerly Used Defense Sites program manager in the Army Corps of Engineers' Jacksonville office. "It is the first to get this kind of attention."

Officials say they have good evidence suggesting the presence of mustard gas at the site, which was used for testing in 1945 and 1946. Potentially lethal, mustard gas was first used in World War I. It causes burning of the skin, eyes and bronchial tubes.

According to Bridgers, the military trained with the gas, loaded into various dissemination devices, including bombs, at the airfield. It is suspected, Bridgers said, that they also trained with other chemical agents, which were kept in small glass vials before being released during drills. The intent was to familiarize soldiers with the effects of various chemical agents in a controlled environment.

Though the threat is real, Bridgers and County Administrator Dick Radacky cautioned against panic. If there was a mustard gas bomb in the area poised to explode and release toxic gas into the air, it would likely have done so many years ago, Radacky said.

Federal officials, pointing to security and safety concerns, are withholding the exact locations they plan to investigate. All are in the airport area, which is just west of the intersection of Spring Hill Drive and U.S. 41.

Officials say they don't want a curious young person getting hurt, like an incident in 1963 when an aviation worker came across a vial of mustard gas and had to be hospitalized.

Workers are already clearing the sites and preparing for the first phase of the study. Four weeks of safety training is expected to begin in a week or two. During the training period and the roughly four weeks of actual site excavation to follow, several precautions will be in place.

The federal government is paying Hernando County $49,224 to have an ambulance ready at the work sites, the air will be monitored for harmful chemical agents and a helicopter will be on call to transport injured workers to Tampa General Hospital in case of catastrophe.

If chemical weapons are found, Bridgers said, the next step would be to determine how to ensure they do not pose a threat.

"We need to know the scope and the magnitude of what the problem might be, not speculation," he said, "Then we need to know what the remedy might be."

Area residents are encouraged to attend a Monday night meeting at which Army Corps of Engineers officials will answer questions about the cleanup. The meeting will be from 6:00 p.m to 8:00 p.m. at Chocochatti Elementary School, 4135 California St. in Brooksville.

_ Will Van Sant covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansantsptimes.com.

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