Navy seeks public comment on Nomans Land

The U.S. Navy is seeking public comment on its cleanup plans for Nomans Land. — Courtesy Libby Herland

Updated Sept. 16

The U.S. Navy will hold a hearing and webinar on management and environmental mitigation efforts proposed for Nomans Land, a Chilmark island owned by the federal government. For roughly half a century, the island served as a bombing range for military aircraft, primarily from the Navy. That activity has left the land there peppered with intact munitions, and fragments and residue from exploded or expended munitions. The unpopulated island now serves as a wildlife sanctuary. The Island has undergone several surveys, and partial cleanup efforts. 

As part of a Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) process, the Navy must seek community commentary on what it plans to do next on Nomans Land. 

Of the three possibilities the Navy has offered up to manage environmental issues and UXO (unexploded ordnance) on the Island, projects valued at $31 million, $11 million, and $0, the Navy wants to move forward with the $11 million project. This project largely relies on signage and other ways of keeping unauthorized people off the island, and on removing munitions as they are discovered, but not digging around for them. The more expensive $31 million project involves digging on the island and in the waters around it for UXOs and other debris. The Navy has stated in its remediation plan that all that digging would cause extensive habitat disturbance. The $0 plan involves doing nothing. 

Beryllium, chromium, copper, lead, nickel, and zinc are among the metals found in the groundwater on the island, according to the Navy’s plan. Uranium is not mentioned, but has been of concern to the Vineyard in the past. Chilmark town administrator Tim Carroll said the Navy was previously asked if Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft, which previously used the island for target practice, used depleted uranium ammunition. The town was told such ammunition wasn’t used, Carroll said. Depleted uranium is a radioactive heavy metal. In ammunition, the metal is used to penetrate heavy armor. 

In a Sept. 9 letter to The Times, Falmouth resident Richard Hugus, who did civilian cleanup work at Otis Air Force Base and Camp Edwards, wrote that some of the munitions fired at Nomans Land “probably” contained depleted uranium. Hugus also called the Navy’s proposal a “whitewash” and a “disgrace.”

A spokesperson for Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield was unable to answer whether depleted uranium rounds were used on Nomans Land, and referred inquiry to Massachusetts National Guard Joint Force Headquarters at Hanscom Air Force Base. A spokesperson there wasn’t immediately able to answer the question. 

Longtime mariner Dave Tilton, whose ancestors lived on Nomans Land in the 19th century, has sailed around the island for decades, and has snuck ashore many times (not advisable). In the late 1940s, he said, large cast-iron bombs that issued black smoke were dropped on the Island.

“The Island was covered with these,” he said. As a kid, he disarmed some that hadn’t gone off, and took the powder that was inside (also not advisable). He recalled sprinkling a line of the powder across Main Street in Vineyard Haven one night and lighting it. The black smoke mystified night Policeman Billy King, he recalled.

Another time in the early 1950s, he came ashore just after bombing sorties finished (also not advisable). “I think I counted 27 rockets that were still laying on the shore,” he said.

He and other fishermen and lobstermen would routinely enter the nautical exclusion zone around the island, he said. Sometimes planes spotted them. “If you were inside the zone, they’d buzz you,” he said.

Tilton recalled seeing the A-10 Thunderbolts in later years. Once one of the Thunderbolts passed so close to his boat “you could see the guy’s face” in the cockpit. He recalled the aviator waved with the wings of the plane. 

If someone were to encounter a UXO, military officials say, they should “recognize, retreat, and report.” Suspected munitions should be reported to the local authorities.

The public comment period began Sept. 15, and runs to Oct 15. Comments can be mailed to Dave Barney, BRAC Environmental Coordinator, BRAC Program Management Office East, P.O. Box 169, South Weymouth, MA 02190. Comments can also be emailed to david.a.barney@navy.mil.

The webinar and hearing are slated for Sept. 29, at 7 pm and 8 pm respectively.