Our Very Own Ypres

Unexploded ordnance from World War I, photo by Chris Gehrz

Unexploded ordnance from World War I, photo by Chris Gehrz

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.


  1. Ibid, 4-14 to 4-18. 
  2. Jenkins, Thomas F., Thorne, Philip G. and Walsh, Marianne E, Field Screening Method for TNTN and RDX in Groundwater, Special Report 94-14. See also Walsh, Marianne E. and Jenkins, Thomas F, Identification of TNT Transformation Products in Soil, Special Report 92-16. 

3 thoughts on “Our Very Own Ypres

  1. We have the Army doing the same on Oahu & the Big Island. Environmentalists keep trying to stop it, to no avail. Non-stop firing. One of the Islands- Kahulawe hasn’t been able to be visited since WWII. They used it for target practice during the war. There was a massive effort, for over two years, to clean out the ordinance. Even now, only certain Hawaiians are allowed in the cleared areas. They’ve planted many of the Hawaiian natural species since the continual firing killed off every spec of vegetation. The rest of the Island is still dangerous. This Island is important to the culture, & their religious practices. Did it Matter? You know the answer to that. Ain’t war grand?

  2. Dad used to own a cabin in the foothills of the Alaska Range, several miles away from the training area boundary. We’d find UXO all over the place – even a few 5′ shells. It scared me far more than the bears in the area. Having been all around the borders of the area, I guarantee the military is low-balling their estimate. We saw huge fields where barrels of toxic sludge had been dumped, oozing their mysterious contents into the ground. There’s also the matter of the nuclear reactor’s waste products, which I personally know nothing about, but let’s just say I’m not optimistic it was dealt with responsibly.

    • Ditto on the waste. Also, consider the effects of global warming on top of this problem. Melting will not be pretty and I imagine the hydrologic problems will be unsolvable. We are nasty little creatures.

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