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Silence not so golden for residents near cleanup

The sandbags are stacked on each other in a vacant lot off Pitcairn Street, as if somebody had abandoned their post in a hurry.

The neighborhood has been silent lately. Not one explosion has gone off since last Friday.

You'd think that people who live in the area off State Road 50, west of the Suncoast Parkway, would appreciate the silence and not having to evacuate to their homes all day to escape the noise.

The workers who left their sandbags lying around didn't ask for a break. And residents of this neighborhood north of Spring Hill didn't want this respite.

The cleanup of the Brooksville Gunnery Range is on hiatus, thanks to the state fire marshal's office. It shut down the much-delayed cleanup because Environmental Chemical Corp, the California company being paid $1.9-million by the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to do the job, doesn't have a license to handle explosives. Well, not exactly. The company has a license _ a federal license. It just doesn't have a Florida license.

To make matters worse, on Thursday state officials said they wanted ECC to barricade the site and to post "keep out" signs. There's no telling when the cleanup will resume.

Some of crew doing the cleanup are retired military explosive experts who had worked in some dangerous places around the world. They are pretty tight-lipped. They drive around with "explosives expert" and "DOD" (Department of Defense) stickers on their trucks. But that doesn't impress the fire marshal's office.

No license, no cleanup. No explosions.

Imagine how ridiculous this sounds to the people who are staring at the red flags that signify where explosives are buried in their yards.

Imagine the frustration of those trying to sell their homes not knowing when World War II era explosives buried in the neighborhood will be cleared.

The range was part of 10,200 acres of woodlands and shrub used by the War Department in 1943 for training. After the range closed, the area was never totally cleared of bazooka rockets, mortar rounds and rifle grenades.

The clearing begins and then gets halted.

The Corps of Engineers has been talking about cleaning up the Gunnery Range for the past decade. After all the delays for tests, permits and applications, you'd think somebody might have considered that the state fire marshal's office wanted a piece of the action.

State officials would rather you not call this a case of old-fashioned red tape. After all, in our color-coded, post-Sept. 11 age, you can never be too careful about who's handling explosives.

State officials said no one complained. They were merely doing their job when in the "normal course of doing business," they learned that ECC didn't have a Florida license.

The fire marshal's office licenses businesses who manufacture, sell or use explosives. They might have noticed that ECC was getting their hands on too many explosives lately. Since the company began the cleanup in November, they have detonated 55 buried explosives.

Each buried explosive is excavated and detonated where it's found. Sandbags muffle the blast. If that works in Baghdad, it can work in Brooksville. The cleanup was expected to be complete by August; now that's uncertain.

In the midst of all the uncertainty, the neighborhood is rampant with red flags and stories. Neighbors said two explosives were found beneath a family's trampoline. Who knew this was an old gunnery range?

Since the work began, none of the contractors or the residents have been injured by the explosives. No houses or cars have been damaged.

So far the damage has been limited to the neighborhood's psyche and its self worth _ how much houses will sell for now that everyone knows there may be bombs buried nearby.

Of course, some completed paperwork and exploded munitions can remedy that.

Andrew Skerritt can be reached at (813) 909-4602 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 4602. His e-mail address is askerritt@spttmes.com.

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