Nature and military clash over disputed cleanup on unused base

The Associated Press
Wednesday December 26, 2001

FORT ORD — A dispute over air pollution and endangered species has left the U.S. Army unable to continue cleaning up this decommissioned military base, where rockets, grenades, mortars, bullets and other potentially lethal scrap lie unexploded in the brush. 

The Army is hoping to use controlled burns to clear the dense brush so it can then go in and remove the explosives. But the area is home to endangered, threatened and rare plant species, such as the Monterey sand gilia, Monterey spine flower and Seaside bird’s beak, and the California tiger salamander. 

The public also is leery about controlled burns at the base. In 1997, one burn turned into a wildfire that consumed 700 acres of land and shrouded the peninsula in thick smoke. 

“People living in cities 20 miles away had to drive with their headlights on,” said Douglas Quetin, the air pollution control officer for the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District. 

Fires, accidental and prescribed, have been frequent at the post, where explosions could be heard for miles. 

The Army was ordered to clean up the 28,000-acre site, which was declared a Superfund site largely due to the ordnance left after 77 years as an infantry training post. The area where the ammunition is concentrated is fenced off by 12 miles of concertina wire. 

The Army doesn’t own all the land anymore, having transferred 7,200 acres of it to the federal Bureau of Land Management, which has turned it into a recreational area. About 6,000 acres are slated for development by surrounding communities. And since 1995, the post, which closed in 1994, has become the campus for California State University, Monterey Bay. 

The cleanup of Fort Ord includes removing the ordnance and remedying soil and water contamination. It has cost $250 million to date and is expected to take 10 to 15 years and cost another $75 million to finish. 

The Army estimates it already has removed 42,000 pieces of the ammunition and 350 tons of lead and bullet parts from firing ranges. 

The Army is planning to publish an interim plan listing several alternatives to complete the ordnance cleanup in March. 

While the environmental review continues, explosives technicians scour the brush. They bury the unexploded ordnance to muffle the sound when they detonate it. 

Biologist Bill Collins, the environmental monitor for the removal project, says the controlled burns that would clear the chaparral would also help many of the plants there germinate. 

“If we were to go in and only use cutting as a method of clearing that chaparral, the seeding plants that require fire to germinate would disappear over time, so the habitat would change,” he said.