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Special Report: What’s Hidden Beneath Redstone Arsenal?

REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. (WHNT) – Thousands of north Alabamians work at Redstone Arsenal.  It’s the modern home for multiple Army Commands, and NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. That’s a great legacy, but it’s not the only one.

“This site in the entire area, and this portion of Redstone was involved in the post World War II years in the production of rockets,” says Barry Hodges, the Industrial Waste Site Manager.  He’s talking to me as we stand beside a large hole in the ground in the southeastern section of Redstone.

The dirt that used to be in the hole was saturated with rocket fuel residue, a chemical called Perclorate.  It’s just one of the industrial chemicals that have so polluted the groundwater at Redstone, that you can’t drink from springs or wells anywhere on base. “It’s just a different world today than it was then,” says Barry.

DANGER

The dirt from the hole where Barry and I talked has been taken to a managed landfill. That same process will be repeated at other sites on the base.  Barry takes us to another operation where large electrodes are planted in the soil. They heat up the soil and essentially boil chemical solvents out of the dirt.  The complicated setup will be moved from site to site as the cleanup continues.

“Us pulling this concentrated stuff out allows nature in a much shorter time to affect an improvement in the condition,” says Barry Hodges.  He’s talking about what the cleanup process means to the groundwater.  The cleanup of industrial waste sites at Redstone Arsenal won’t be finished for at least eight more years, though.

Cleaning up the environment wasn’t what north Alabamians were thinking about in 1941. That’s when big bold newspaper headlines announced the Army was putting a $40 million chemical warfare facility in Madison County.  The Arsenal was under construction when the war began, but not long after that assembly lines were busy turning out chemical weapons.  Artillery and mortar rounds that contained chemicals like Mustard and Lewisite. The rounds intended to vaporize the chemicals inside them on impact.  The vapor would burn the skin and lungs of an enemy soldier.

Those munitions were never used, and at the end of the war they had to be destroyed.  So did captured chemical rounds made by the Germans,  Japanese, and British. Those munitions were shipped to the Arsenal for destruction. In all, there were some 178 train car loads of foreign chemical munitions brought to north Alabama.  Once on the base, the rounds were drained of their contents.  The chemicals were shipped elsewhere, but the shell casings stayed behind.  The empty shells, manufacturing equipment, even parts of the buildings where the munitions were assembled were placed in trenches.  It was all fixed with explosives, blown up, and buried.

Right now there are 17 sites for chemical weapons debris on Redstone Arsenal — a total of six miles of buried debris that will have to be cleaned up.

“It’s not easy at all,” says Wilson Walters, a Chemical Weapons specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers. He adds, “They’re buried. So as long as they stay in the ground they’re pretty well contained.”

It should be noted here, that the experts with the Corps of Engineers believe all the trenches contain nothing but debris, but it’s not certain.

“Worst case is that there could be a full up round out there that could detonate once we expose it and open up the trench of something like that. It could detonate and disperse some chemical agent,” says Terry Delapaz, the Chief Environmental Engineer on the Arsenal cleanup project.

It sounds scary when she talks about an exploding poison gas round, but precautions will be taken.

“That’s why we establish the safety arcs when we’re out there doing the work, and opening these trenches. So if that worst case were to occur, that it would be contained within that safety arc that we’ve kept people out of,” says Delapaz.

“We can’t afford to hurt someone, we just can’t,” says Wilson Walters.

The project to clean up the weapons debris sites will continue until sometime in the early 2040’s. Between now and then, thousands of people will work on the Arsenal every day.  There are homes all around the periphery of the base.  WHNT News 19 asked Terry Delapaz if the chemical weapons sites are dangerous to workers and neighbors.

“No sir, they are not. They are the least risky quite frankly, because they are located in remote areas. Areas we’ve got good ability to keep people out of easily. They don’t seem to be sourcing into the ground water to any great extent. Those cause the least risk to the community and the folks on post,” said Delapaz.

She reminded me more than once that every safety precaution will be taken during the cleanup.  It’s the precautions and the slow and careful procedure of uncovering the trenches that will keep this cleanup going for another three decades. Once the official cleanup of the sites is complete, the process won’t be finished. “The Army will place a land use control on them.  A restriction that will be in place forever,” says Delapaz.

It should be noted that there are questions about exactly what will be found during the cleanup process.  One disturbing example of that is a quarry on Redstone.  Over the years, the Army has thrown things away, and the documentation definitely wasn’t great.

“We have 55-gallon drums that could have potentially stored chemical agent. We have unidentified munitions at the bottom of the quarry, sitting at the bottom that have been improperly disposed of by our current standards,” said Jason Watson, an Evironmental Protections Specialist.

Obviously the quarry and every other site will be studied and mapped as part of the process of safely recovering and disposing of “whatever” is there.  Equipment is already on base to figure out what’s buried in the trenches.  The equipment can determine the size, shape and depth of the debris.

The process of cleaning up all the hundreds of dangerous sites on Redstone Arsenal will move slowly. It will, as one expert told me, use every safety precaution that’s available.  The Alabama Department of Environmental Management will supervise the cleanup every step of the way.