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After 60 years the Feds still have not cleaned up these WWII messes

by Carl Holcombe Monday, Nov. 27, 2006 at 6:28 PM

Another one of those articles showing that the Federal Government is one of the worst polluters in the nation. And that you can't rely on either the Federal or State governments to protect your rights or property.

Developers covet 1940s bombing ranges

In the 1940s, Army Air Corps bombers thundered across the skies of Arizona, dropping practice bombs on mock towns and giant bull's-eye targets on the desert floor during practice runs for the real thing in the European and Pacific theaters.

Nearly six decades later, the state's housing market has started turning the middle of nowhere into the middle of somewhere, particularly in fast-growing Pinal County, site of 14 former practice bombing spots.

And those practice bombs from long ago are creating a problem for housing today. Some of them, loaded with flash-and-burn black powder charges, may still be waiting to explode.

Former defense sites "used to be way out in rural parts of the county," said Ken Buchanan, assistant Pinal County manager. "Now, they're in the path of the development boom or are in the development."

Cleanup of the sites falls to the Army Corps of Engineers, which has been surveying military cleanup sites nationwide. For them, the process could take a decade or more.

Developers don't want to wait that long. But having a private contractor clean up the bomb sites is uncharted territory in Pinal County, and the county and state have been caught unprepared for this development glitch. The problem: No agency can yet declare the old bombing sites cleared. Until someone does, the county won't allow building.

Meanwhile, the old bombing debris is still out there - along with hikers, ATV riders and a few homeowners.

"I didn't know about (the bombing sites), and I lived here practically my whole life and seen a lot of desert," said longtime area historian John Swearingen of Florence, who encountered a site east of the town years ago.

The bombing ranges

Planes from Williams Field at Mesa dropped bombs across the desert from World War II until the late 1940s. The 100-pound practice bombs filled with sand and 3-pound flash-and-burn black powder charges and flares fell from the sky onto practice bombing sites. There were 107 practice or live bombing and gunnery sites around the state, and the Army Corps of Engineers counts 286 "Formerly Used Defense Sites" around the state, including air fields and bases, prisoner of war camps, a potential chemical-weapons site in western Arizona, and other facilities.

The Army leased the bombing sites from private landowners and in some cases from the state; it wasn't unusual for bombing sites to encompass private and state land. The sites were dozens of miles from any established communities at the time. Pinal County had a population of about 30,000 in 1940.

In 1948, with World War II over, virtually all of the practice and live bombing sites were shut down. The Army sent crews to clean up, and it later issued letters certifying the sites as clean. The bombing was basically forgotten, and the empty desert remained. Homes were occasionally built or trailers rolled in.

In 1986, a new issue arose: Congress directed the Army Corps of Engineers to examine closed military sites nationwide to determine if cleanup issues remained.

And despite those old letters from the Army, new surveys determined the cleanup at the practice bombing ranges hadn't been good enough or documented well enough. The new sites weren't clean based on modern standards.

Those same sites are now at the edge of one of the country's fastest growing areas.

What's out there

Decades-old federal records, incomplete or poorly documented cleanups and old tales of graduating cadets being allowed to drop real bombs have left unanswered questions about exactly what, if any, munitions may still be sitting out there. Pinal County officials, developers, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality are locked in a four-way dance over who cleans up these former bombing sites, who certifies them as clean and who is responsible if something goes wrong.

The Army Corps says that first an investigation of what may have been left behind must be conducted. Then must come the cleanups, which are expected to cost millions of dollars each.The Army Corps is completing evaluations for sites northwest of Casa Grande, northwest of Florence and a site west of the Arizona 84 and 347 interchange west of Casa Grande, said Larry Sievers, an Army Corps cleanup project coordinator.

There are 33 former defense sites in Pinal County, and based on rough estimates for 22 of them, the Corps says it could cost million just to clean up the debris left over from the practice runs.

The investigation process includes sweeping the site with metal detectors and mapping where scrap or undetonated practice bombs, flares or other items are located.

A cleanup is under way at a site off of the Florence-Kelvin Highway between Florence and Kearny near the Boulders, an outdoors area popular with rock climbers.

Meanwhile, ATV and horse riders, hikers and others continue to use the land not knowing about possible World War II leftovers. Some individual homes already have been built within the boundaries of a couple of the sites, without the homeowners knowing of the bombing ranges.

If an unexploded practice bomb was found, its explosion could cause a flash with a radius of as much as 9 feet, which could burn and injure someone and could be especially dangerous to children.

Army Corps personnel say risks are low. They have never found unexploded real bombs, they said.

"There is a high degree of confidence there are no high explosives" left over in Pinal County, Sievers said. "But you can never be certain until an inspection is done."

Waiting game

Northwest of Florence, one developer isn't interested in waiting what could be another decade for the Army Corps to get around to cleaning things up.

Carabello East LLC wants to build about 2,000 houses on 1 square mile inside an old practice bombing site northwest of Florence.

The nearest developments, such as Magma Ranch, are a few miles away.

Carabello has offered to handle the cleanup on its site as well as about 250 acres of the bombing land that crosses into state trust land, said Gary Jones, a land entitlement consultant for Carabello's parent company, SunAmerican Caballero.

The company did not find out about the required cleanup until after the land was bought, as it believed a 60-year-old federal letter saying the site had been cleaned up was still relevant, Jones said.

Land development attorney Jordan Rose, who is working for the company, said private developers have taken on cleanup projects of practice bombing sites in other states.

"It goes much faster," Rose said. "They can get it cleaned up in two or three years, as opposed to 20 years."

But the project is locked in a stalemate.

The developer says it can't secure financing for the cleanup until it can prove it has approval to build. The county won't approve development plans until it gets proof the area has been cleaned up.

"Should something happen after the houses are built, the only deep pockets left would be the county's," Hardy said.

"I don't think they would be liable, but if it isn't cleaned up properly, I think the county could be sued one day."

So one project remains on hold. The future of several parcels in the path of new development is in limbo. And for some residents, the news of possible explosives comes as a surprise.

Jose Vidana's family moved into a home northwest of Casa Grande about four months ago. He goes on almost daily ATV rides with his teenage sons across the land nearby. He says no one told him when they moved in that the area was inside a former test-bombing site.

"I'm probably going to think about it a lot now," Vidana said. "We'll pay more attention now."

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