Unexploded Munitions in U.S.


Apr 28, 2003

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on April 28, 2003.

Unexploded bombs, tank and artillery shells, and other munitions that are scattered around Iraq as a result of this year's war and the 1991 Gulf War remain a hazard to Iraqis and coalition forces. But, unknown to many Americans, unexploded munitions pose a hazard right here in the United States as well.

In fact, as the United States continues to close military bases made obsolete by the end of the Cold War, we face what some fear may become the largest environmental cleanup program ever in the nation's history.

Last summer for example, an unexploded shell containing the potentially deadly chemical phosgene was found in an Alabama farm pasture just a short distance from a family's home. It turns out that unbeknownst to the family, they built their home on a former artillery range that was part of a now-closed World War II-era chemical weapons training base.

Near-tragedies of this sort are extremely rare, but they underscore what could be a growing problem unless Congress can move forward a stalled effort to cope with the multiple hazards posed by unexploded munitions found at firing ranges on about half of the nation's closed military bases.

The unexploded munitions not only pose an obvious explosion risk, but the chemicals and heavy metals in the ordnance can leach into drinking water supplies of nearby communities. At one installation, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered the military to halt all of its live-fire training because explosives were leaching off a training range into local water wells.

The hazard of unexploded military ordnance is likely to become a bigger issue in the future. Since the end of the Cold War, some 20 percent of major U.S. military installations have closed and, in November, the Bush administration announced plans to close more bases in 2005. At this point, nobody can agree on how to clean up this land to make it safe for transfer to civilians.

At nearly all the bases that have closed since the Cold War ended, the land contaminated with unexploded munitions is sitting idle because federal and state agencies have been unable to agree on how to clean it up. Plans for building communities, commercial facilities, parks, and other civilian assets are collecting dust while the EPA, the states, and the Department of Defense continue to debate how cleanup should proceed.

One problem is that existing technologies are not adequate to guarantee that all the ordnance can be found and removed. In most cases, cleanup crews are equipped only with metal detectors and shovels or backhoes.

Field tests show that the detection rate is usually less than 90 percent — often much less. That means that for every 100 unexploded items in the ground, the detectors leave 10 or more hazardous items behind. Frequent false alarms also complicate the search.

A second problem is that cleanup costs for unexploded ordnance are potentially very high, and right now there's not enough money in the federal budget to pay for that. No one knows exactly how much the cleanup will cost. The most recent Department of Defense estimate was $14 billion, but the General Accounting Office concluded that the real costs could amount to $100 billion or more. At the current spending rate, cleaning up all the unexploded munitions at closed bases will take a century or more.

A third problem is that nobody can agree on how to determine whether land is safe for new uses. The Army developed several risk assessment methods intended to answer the question, "How clean is clean?" However, the EPA and state officials generally did not accept the results, and the methods received relatively poor marks in technical reviews.

Additional funds and national standards are needed to implement the cleanup process. The federal government has money set aside and national standards for every other major national environmental problem: toxic waste sites, contaminated water supplies, pesticide contamination and air pollution. Why not unexploded ordnance?

America needs broad goals for ordnance cleanups. One agency needs to be given final authority — and money — to develop and enforce the standards.

Jacqueline MacDonald is an environmental engineer at RAND.

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