Back in 2020, as part of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) process, the Navy provided a public webinar and comment period on the three options: a $31 million cleanup, an $11 million monitoring and awareness program, or a $0 do-nothing stance. The Navy has opted for the $11 million program for Nomans Land. The island is just under three miles off the Vineyard, and has an area of a little over 600 acres. Nomans Land is part of the town of Chilmark, but is owned by the federal government. It has no human inhabitants.
For roughly a half-century, the Navy, and reportedly also the Air Force, pulverized the tiny island for target practice. The Navy has made prior efforts to clean up munitions and explosives of concern (MEC) and unexploded ordnance (UXO) on the island, its shores, and nearby waters. The danger posed by UXO appears to be the core reason the island is a no-go area.
The option the Navy chose is titled “Alternative S-2, Institutional Controls/Public Awareness and Enforcement.” Alternative S-2 includes an operations and maintenance plan to keep an eye on MEC and UXO that may become exposed, and to keep people from trespassing on the island.
This plan will include upkeep of existing signage on the island and adding more signs, monitoring by partner agencies, adoption of a violations and fines system, creation of an information pamphlet, and a public awareness campaign regarding UXO.
The determination concludes the benefits of digging up the island to further recover MEC and UXO are outweighed by the ecological impacts such activity will create. In addition to its military mantle, Nomans Land is a wildlife refuge, most notably for birds and rabbits. In that capacity it is under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The Navy states in its determination that UXO have the potential to move or become exposed due to “human activity, precipitation runoff, erosion, frost heave, storm surge, and tidal action.”
In the determination, the Navy says it believes a lot of MEC and UXO were disposed of by its own SeaBees through onsite detonation; it states there is a possibility of a “burial pit or trench” on the island where UXO was dumped. However, the Navy states, it has found no evidence of such a pit or trench.
In a 1998 cleanup of the island, the Navy removed 551,780 pounds of ordnance debris from rockets, bombs, shells, and bullets.
That cleanup included debris from 20 Mark 7 bombs, according to a table in the determination. Better known as the Mark 7 nuclear bomb, the bomb was the first Air Force and Navy fighter aircraft could carry, according to a National Museum of the U.S. Air Force webpage. When asked about this type of bomb and whether versions with actual radiological components were dropped on Nomans Land, Navy Environmental Coordinator Dave Barney wrote, “Only inert or, in limited usage conventional, ordnance was used during training exercises on the island. Since then, cleanup actions have taken place to remove unexploded ordnance to ensure public safety.”
Among the metals found in the groundwater on Nomans Land are beryllium, chromium, copper, lead, nickel, and zinc, according to Navy records. However, there’s no mention of uranium. Chilmark town administrator Tim Carroll previously said the Navy was asked if Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft, which reportedly used the island for target practice, employed depleted uranium ammunition. The town was told depleted uranium ammunition wasn’t used, Carroll said. Depleted uranium is a radioactive heavy metal. In ammunition, the metal is used to penetrate heavy armor such as a tank’s.
In a Sept. 9, 2020, 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 criticized the Navy’s disinclination to further clean up Nomans Land, calling the Navy’s proposal (Alternative S-2) a “whitewash” and a “disgrace.”
The Times was previously unable to get representatives from Barnes National Guard Base or
Massachusetts National Guard Joint Force Headquarters at Hanscom Air Force Base to field questions about the use of depleted uranium ammunition.
Barney previously told The Times the Navy has found no evidence depleted uranium was used on Nomans Land.
When asked if the Air Force weighed in on the determination, Barney wrote, “No. As the property owner, [the] Navy has conducted all environmental cleanup actions in consultation and coordination with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Carroll wrote that the town hasn’t reviewed the determination yet, and so he could not comment on whether it’s acceptable.