It’s been a century since the start of World War I. Yet unexploded ordinance – explosives and war gas shells – continue to turn up in vast quantities in the battlefields of France and Belgium. In the area of Ypres, France, alone, in the last four years the disposal squads have dealt with 629 tons of unexploded shells. Since the Great War ended, the deadly detritus has killed more than 360, and injured more than 500 around Ypres alone.
WC mentions the unexploded ordinance from World War I because, since the end of World War II, U.S. Army Alaska has been creating Alaska’s very own massive field of unexploded ordinance in the East Central Tanana Valley. The Army calls it the Fort Greely West Training Area. It’s bounded on the west by Delta Creek, on the north by the Tanana River, on the south by the foothills of the Alaska Range and on the east by the Richardson Highway.
The Army chooses not to disclose the total number of high explosive rounds that have been discharged in the Fort Greely West Training Area. But public records for the 1990s show that thousands, in some years tens of thousands, of high explosive rounds are fired in the area. That in addition to tons of lead in the form of small arms rounds. In addition, the U.S. Air Force uses portions of the West Training Area as a bombing range. Tens of thousands of bombs have been dropped on the Range, some practice and some not.
Not all of the bombs, mortar rounds and artillery shells explode, of course. Neither the Army or the Air Force will estimate how much unexploded ordinance is in the Training Range, but in 1998, as a part of its application to renew it use permit, the Army estimated the cost of cleaning up the mess at $248,900,000.00. A quarter of a billion dollars.
The Army went on to say,
Since military training and testing has occurred on these lands for nearly fifty years, with portions designated as High Hazard Impact Areas, it is likely that complete decontamination would be extremely expensive and technologically challenging.[1^]
In Army-speak, “technologically challenging” means “can’t be done.” Thousands of unexploded rounds scattered over hundreds of square miles of heavily vegetated terrain, swamps and muddy soils.
There’s an additional complication: wildfires can’t be fought in areas of the range known or suspected to have unexploded ordinance. When the Army or Air Force starts a wildfire, it necessarily burns uncontrolled. Firefighters can’t be put on the ground. Aircraft can’t fly low enough to be effective because of the risk of shrapnel from exploding munitions. The air around Interior Alaska fills with unhealthy levels of smoke. And if the East Central Tanana Valley gets one of its periodic windstorms, where the wind blows through Black Rapids Canyon at 50 mph or more, a fire in the High Impact Ranges can be blown into the Richardson Highway corridor and Delta Junction in a matter of hours.
Beyond wildfires that can’t be fought, there’s an additional issue of soil and groundwater contamination. Not only do high explosives create craters and widely distribute steel fragments and other bomb parts; they also inject chemicals into wide areas and, sometimes, into the ground and surface waters. The Army admits that there are no comprehensive studies on chemical explosives in the taiga and swamplands of the Fort Greely Training Area.1 In other training ranges, the explosives have been shown to be highly mobile in the environment and to have even contaminated groundwater sources. Sunlight and microbiological actions transform the intiial chemicals into other, dangerous chemcials.2
As WC writes, the Army is lobbing more shells into the Stuart Creek Impact Area. With its companion ranges, the Army and Air Force are creating no-go zones that will persist for hundreds of years, or require hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up. We’re creating our very own Ypres. With the same potential consequences.