South Shore munitions cleanup hits hurdle
File photo by Nelson Sigelman
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last week began a search along the Martha's Vineyard shoreline to locate World War II era munitions that remain buried from Cape Poge on Chappaquiddick to Tisbury Great Pond in West Tisbury. The $5.2 million project is the second phase of an effort to find and clear practice munitions.
The effort faces hurdles. Some private property owners have ignored Army Corps requests for written permission to get access to property, or outright refused to grant permission.
"The lack of cooperation could severely impact the project if we get a significant amount of people that are not willing to participate," New England District project manager Carol Ann Charette said in a conversation with the Times last week.
For the most part, the cleanup involves land owned or controlled by The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), a private nonprofit conservation group, and the state. But there are also many individual property owners.
A major complication for the Army Corps is gaining access to a section of barrier beach at Tisbury Great Pond known as Quansoo. Years ago, the beach was divided into slivers as a way to sell beach access. Owners belong to the Quansoo Beach Association (QBA), an approximately 135-member organization that maintains a staffed and locked gate during the summer months.
Ms. Charette said she attended a meeting of the QBA to explain the project with the hope that the QBA leadership could sign rights of entry for all the properties, but the leadership said it would not. As a result the Corps has had to contact each individual property owner.
"It's a voluminous task," Ms. Charette said.
This summer the QBA leadership changed. Peter Huntington of West Tisbury was elected president and has been very cooperative, Ms. Charette said.
Initially the Corps sought a five-year right of entry. The Corps reduced the time frame to two years to ease concerns. Mr. Huntington sent an email to QBA members encouraging them to sign, Ms. Charette said.
Property owners are concerned about destruction to the beach, environmental damage from vehicles to brush, dunes, and grasses. "All kinds of things that I told them are not going to happen," Ms. Charette said.
She attributes the reluctance of property owners to sign an entry document she says is boilerplate to a lack of understanding of the actual nature of the work and mistrust of the government.
Ms. Charette said five people have outright denied the Army Corps access to their pond-side property. "They do not want the government coming on their property," she said.
Ms. Charette said that the Corps would not force the issue. Ultimately, property owners may be responsible if ordnance turns up on their property or other state and federal agencies could step into the fray if it is determined that there is a public safety or environmental hazard.
Ms. Charette described the difference between the previous cleanup and the current project.
"What took place in the past was what we call a time-critical removal action where at South beach and Cape Poge we did a geophysical survey and as we found things we dug them up and removed them, whether it was ordnance or cultural debris," she said. "This time we are doing a remedial investigation. We will still be doing geophysical surveys but we will not dig up everything we find that might be a metallic object that might be buried beneath the surface."
In 2009, in a collaborative effort with state, county, and local officials, the Army Corps conducted an emergency cleanup of rockets and practice bombs at Little Neck, South Beach, and Norton Point Beach, up to 100 feet from the shoreline. Those efforts resulted in the discovery and disposal of 127 MK-23 and MK-5 practice bombs from Little Neck and 617 aerial rocket motors, practice bombs, and warheads from Norton Point and South Beach.
None of the bombs found in the 2009 summer cleanup contained explosive material.
In this second phase, which began on Monday December 6, the goal is to identify the size of the problem, not remove objects. It is described in Army Corps jargon as a Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study (RI/FS).
Contractors will first conduct a search and map objects.
"The initial work will consist of performing a geophysical survey on the land and beach areas to determine if there are any buried ordnance items, performing a bathymetric survey to determine the bottom depth in both Cape Poge bay and Tisbury Great Pond and to see inert items off the shore of Tisbury Great pond and South Beach to track how these items move in the ocean currents offshore," Ms. Charette said in a press release. "The results of the geophysical surveys will help define the horizontal and vertical boundary where munitions may be buried as well as the type of buried munitions."
Once the survey is complete the Army Corps will then evaluate various remedial actions that could include digging up munitions, long-term monitoring, or doing nothing. "The RI/FS will help determine if any future actions are required to protect human health and the environment," the Corps said in a press release.
The fieldwork is expected to be completed by June 2011.
The reaction of some property owners to the request for written permission to access properties within the survey area calls to mind a quote by former president Ronald Reagan who said, "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"
Malcolm Jones of West Tisbury owns property on Deep Bottom Cove and the barrier beach that separates the pond from the ocean. He gave permission for access to the beach but not the pond-side property. "We told them that if there was a problem we'd hire our own experts," Mr. Jones said in a telephone call with the Times.
Mr. Jones said he has lived on his farm for 60 years, plowed the ground and there is nothing there. He considers the project much ado about rust.
"I tried to cooperate with them in the beginning and when they got their $5.4 million they've gone crazy and I hate to see the taxpayer's money pay for it," he said. "It sort of just got out of hand as far as I'm concerned and I've never, ever found a bomb out there that I could ever blow up."
Mr. Jones explained that in the past he has removed some of the contents of found bombs and failed to ignite the material. He added, "All they're doing is blowing up piles of rust with high explosives."
Mr. Jones suspects that after 40 years the decision to spend millions on cleanup is related to President Obama's decision to vacation on the Vineyard. "I'm not saying that there are not bombs out there that could be dangerous but I've never found any."
In recent years, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has begun cleaning up what are termed Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS), properties that the Department of Defense once owned or used, but no longer controls. Martha's Vineyard is on that list.
More than 60 years ago, Navy and Army pilots regularly used Tisbury Great Pond and East Beach and an area known as Little Neck on Chappaquiddick for bombing and strafing practice. The list of munitions used at Tisbury Great Pond included 100- and 500-pound practice bombs with spotting charges, and .30 and .50 caliber bullets.
Over the years the remnants of those training missions, mostly rusted practice bombs, have continued to turn up in the marsh and on the beach, most often on areas owned or managed by The Trustees of Reservations (TTOR), the private conservation organization.
Most of the ordnance are practice bombs that have only a small explosive charge, but a few of the discoveries have turned out to be the real thing.
In the past several years, the U.S. Navy has detonated several 100-pound bombs and munitions debris that they believed contained explosive material, taken from Tisbury Great Pond and from Wasque Point on Chappaquiddick.
The most recent discovery of World War II era practice bombs occurred in November when some people walking the beach at Long Point noticed a large bomb in the sand at the cut in the barrier beach between the ocean and Tisbury Great Pond. Later that day, Navy explosives ordnance disposal blew up five rusted practice bombs.
Previously, the State Police bomb squad came to the Island to evaluate suspicious objects, but the frequent discoveries put a strain on the bomb squad's resources. Now, when a bomb is discovered, the authorities notify West Tisbury resident Tom Rancich. He is a veteran of the U.S. Navy who spent part of his career as a Navy Seal dealing with disposal of unexploded bombs. Mr. Rancich's company, VRHabilis, assisted in the 2009 removal effort and is under contract to help in the current survey.
Mr. Rancich determines whether an object is safe to move and store, or whether it may be a live bomb that requires a controlled detonation.
As for what private citizens should do if they come upon a suspicious looking object on the beach, Mr. Rancich has provided the following advice: "Recognize, Retreat, Report. Recognize that the item could be ordnance, retreat from the item the way you approached it, and report it to the police."