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Fire Fight

[whitespace] Christine Bettencourt
George Sakkestad

Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em: Fort Ord neighbor Christine Bettencourt is prepared for the next Army land burn.

Forget cigarette smoke in theater queues; residents near Fort Ord are worried about burning bullets

By Cecily Barnes

BARRY Callenberger woke up in a campsite at Fort Ord last Sept. 17 to a typically gorgeous central coast day. The weather forecast indicated perfect conditions for Callenberger, who is a fire chief with North Tree Fire, a professional controlled-burning company. This was the day he would set fire to 150 acres of former military training ground at the Fort Ord Army Base. Flames would consume the thick chaparral, chemicals and volatile unexploded ordnance lying above ground. Afterward, workers could go in and mechanically extract any remaining hazardous material.

The burning began in 1994, when most military personnel packed up their footlockers and moved off the base, leaving nearly 8,000 acres embedded with the deadly leftovers of military training exercises. The Sept. 17 burn sites, numbers 10 and 44, contained 11,763 cartridges and belts, 66 live explosives such as grenades and sticks of dynamite, 29 expended explosives and other materials that hadn't been identified.

After the cleanup is complete, the Army will hand over 5,000 acres to the Fort Ord Reuse Authority, which was established in anticipation of the base closure. The FORA will then dole out pieces of this land pie to the cities of Marina, Seaside and Del Rey Oaks; the county of Monterey; the California State University at Monterey Bay and other public institutions.

The transfer can't come too soon for some. Del Rey Oaks has already contracted with DBO Development Corporation to construct a hotel and golf course as soon as the land is clean and available; Seaside has Kaufman and Broad waiting in the wings with development plans; and Marina, a step ahead of everyone else, has handed already clean, annexed land to developer Tony Giannetta for a golf course and resort. The rest of Marina's anticipated land, 1,191 acres, will eventually give way to housing, hotels, retail centers, office buildings, possibly a high school and some open space.

An Errant Wind

DIRTY LAND, however, is of no use to anyone. Burning has been one method used to clear the land before extracting the spent weaponry. The Army has also done ground clearing mechanically.

After Callenberger and his team ignited the fire, the greenish smoke plume fattened and rose into the air for about two hours before being unexpectedly detoured by an errant wind.

Nineteen-year-old Stacie Halas looked out the window of her CSUMB army barrack/dorm room and watched the smoke drift behind the campus, over the Toro mountains and into the Salinas Valley. The plume blew into the 750-person town of Spreckels, an unincorporated community about five miles from Salinas. Kathy Odom, the health aide at Spreckels School, said that when the elementary school let out at 2pm, the air was black with ash. "It was laying on the desks. It was that thick."

The air district's phone began ringing, then Callenberger's. The burn was halted, but the fire continued to smolder.

Playing With Fire

LAST MARCH 17, dozens of incensed residents gathered at a meeting of the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District board to demand an end to the burning. How had board members permitted this to happen? The answer was they hadn't.

In 1997, the pollution control district board sued the Army over the burning, and by the end of the March 17 meeting it had voted to do so again. Although some on the 12-member board represent areas that stand to benefit from the land transfers, the vote to sue was unanimous.

"We sued [in 1997] saying that under our regulations, you cannot burn, which is true," says Doug Quetin, air pollution control officer with the district. "We asked [a] federal judge for a temporary restraining order, and he denied it. It was a pretty strong message that we were going to lose on the jurisdiction question."

The Army falls under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency, not local air boards, and the EPA was allowing burning that the air pollution control district would not.

Studies show that most of the ordnance is trapped between two and 10 feet beneath the ground. Richard Seraydarian, section chief of the EPA's Superfund Division, described the burns as essentially vegetative, and therefore sees the toxicity of the smoke as "negligible." While the Army produced an environmental impact study before the land transfers, the EPA admits the issue of smoke was not addressed.

Although it was forced to withdraw its suit, the air pollution control district managed to get the Army, in conjunction with the EPA, to promise to do to certain things, such as notify the community in advance of a burn and wait for favorable meteorological conditions. But on Sept. 17, it was evident that an unpredictable Mother Nature had not been a party to the settlement.

The district hasn't figured out what it will ask for in its second suit, but at least one public official wants to know more about the content of the smoke and how people will be affected.

"There are too many unknowns, in terms of what chemicals are out there, what kind of materials are in the bullets, the bombs, the pieces of metal, the plastics and the rubber," says Salinas mayor and air board member Anna Caballero. "There has to be a scientific way to quantify what it does to the toxicity of the air when you burn it."

A separate lawsuit filed in February 1998 by a group of independent critics called the Fort Ord Toxics Project may provide much of the information Caballero is seeking. In settling that lawsuit, the Army agreed last November to do what is called a Remedial Investigation Feasibility Study (RIFS).

"It will look at alternatives to burning such as [more] mechanical clearing of vegetation," EPA's Fort Ord project manager, John Chesnutt, says, referring to the RIFS study.

Ironically, while the study is being undertaken, the Army is free to continue burning.

"Because that process takes so long, it would mean they couldn't do any work for a long time," Chesnutt says, explaining why the Army won't halt all clean-up while it works on the study.

A halt to the burning is what the air district hoped for in 1997--and what some board members hope for again. "In the cleanup of hazardous waste materials, we've never allowed the pressure to [develop] to overcome the responsibility of the government," Caballero says. "I think it's critical that it's not rushed."

Fort Ord

Waiting to Exhale

SOME LOCAL INTERESTS are eager to avoid any unnecessary delay. Many city mayors--Del Rey Oaks' Jack Barlich, Monterey's Dan Albert, Marina's Jim Perrine and Seaside's Jerry Smith--sit on the Fort Ord Reuse Authority board. Five Monterey County supervisors also sit on the FORA board. Which of the opposing issues should take priority--air quality or development--is the subject of some disagreement.

"I don't like the process of the cleanup being delayed," says Del Rey Oaks Mayor Jack Barlich. "Each day it's being delayed you're flirting with disaster." While he says someone could wander onto the enclosed land and be blown up, he also admits that development is another reason he would like to have the land transferred sooner rather than later.

"Am I anxious to see it move? You could say yes," he says, adding: "Of course, this would be with caution and the safety of people in mind."

FORA staff planner Steve Endsley appears to emphasize the importance of moving ahead with development.

"We are very concerned about human health, but we also don't want to throw any unnecessary impediments in front of the reuse plan," Endsley says. "We have a vital interest in getting the economy going again and getting jobs to replace those lost to the base closure."

Meanwhile, county supervisor and air pollution control board member Judy Pennycook stresses safety. "We cannot do clearing at the expense of human safety," she says.

Big Bang Box Theory

THE SAFETY ISSUE is one that seems to cut several ways. There is the question of having safe air to breathe, as well as the concerns about the safety of the ordnance clearance workers and the safety of the property itself.

A few months ago, a pack of Fitch Middle School students crossed the border into an "off-limits" Fort Ord explosive area and filled their backpacks with old ammunition. Later, the kids tossed their weapons at the walls of their school and ran off. Fortunately, nothing exploded.

"You have to balance the risk of not doing anything and having a kid wander in there, to a couple of days of smoke from burning," Seraydarian says. "It's just kind of a necessary evil."

The EPA bases the acceptability of this evil on a series of "Bang Box" studies performed over the past seven years. Department of Energy and EPA scientists stuck "bulk, clean propellants," such as flakes of TNT, inside a box and burned them. Only negligible traces of benzene, toluene and other hazardous chemicals were released.

Some board members, including Caballero, have criticized these studies as sanitized, incomplete looks at what happens during a burn. Caballero wonders why someone didn't test the air or ground at Fort Ord rather than the air in a box.

"I'm not real convinced that the Bang Box study is the best scientific methodology available," she says. "The kind of soil and water testing we have to do if we're removing [an underground storage tank] is phenomenal. As a city, I don't see how we can be required to do all that and the federal government can just burn it. And they're dealing with much more toxic materials."

The EPA and the Army have had plenty of time to perform more tests. Since Fort Ord was declared a federal Superfund site in 1990, some seven ordnance sites have been burned, two in 1994, two in 1995, one in 1997 and two in 1998. The Army burned for years before this, since the base opened in 1917, but always for the purpose of clearing brush to prevent forest fires, not to clean up ordnance.

Unless held up by legal action, another burn at Fort Ord is scheduled for this July or August on a 25-acre stretch of land that, according to Army documents, contains more than 1,000 rockets and 400-500 tank-penetrating HEAT warheads. Other items found on the site include one MK2 hand grenade, four rifle-launched grenades and nine empty illumination flare signals.

"That area was an old rocket range, but most of them were training rockets," explains Kevin Siemann, an environmental scientist with the Army who fields media inquiries. "The reason we want to burn that area and not go in and mechanically remove it is because we want to be protective of the ordnance workers." The EPA's Chesnutt says workers can more safely remove ordnance when it's visible and not hidden inside shrubbery. Burning not only is the quickest way to clear such brush, but also helps the vegetation and plant life, he says.

After Burn

MORE LAWSUITS MAY be in the offing. Santa Cruz attorney Derek Albertsen says he plans to represent Monterey County residents who can document illnesses possibly connected to the Fort Ord smoke.

The day after the Sept. 17 burn, Jaclynne Stratman says, her 6-year-old son broke out with eczema and began to wheeze. His nose and head became so congested with mucus at night that he would cough until he vomited.

"He's had 13 days of absences this school year," Stratman says. "Even for kindergarten that's really high. This is a kid who didn't even have the average six colds a year. He was very healthy."

Stratman has become ill too, suffering from chronic bronchitis. "My doctor just found nodules on my thyroid," she says.

Dr. Ralph Keill, medical director of Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, says there were no more emergency room visits than usual in the days and weeks following the burns.

"I talked to our pulmonologist, and he said that unless someone was lying right in front of the burn, it shouldn't be a problem," Keill says. "But anybody any distance away could conceivably have an aggravation of an underlying problem such as emphysema or asthma."

Lynn Montandon, an R.N. with the nonprofit Response Team for the Chemically Injured, says there are ways to test for toxic exposure. In a March 3 letter to the air pollution control district board, the California Health Department and the EPA, Montandon requested funding to send an immunologist and a toxicologist to screen people for illnesses related to the smoke from Fort Ord. Montandon says she has had no response.

Future Prospects

THE ARMY, THE EPA and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control have all received letters--from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Assemblymember Fred Keeley, the board of the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District, Spreckels Union School District and many individuals--opposing the burning or requesting more study. Response letters viewed by Metro Santa Cruz reassured the letter writers that the Army works closely with the EPA and that every possible precaution has been taken.

Some in the community would like the Army to cordon off the area with barbed wire and write off the loss. Christine Bettencourt, who moved from her Seaside home because the smoke made her ill, is one of those people.

"Even if they clean it, there will be toxins burnt into the ground. It will be in the dust, it will be everywhere," she said.

Others hold less extreme positions.

"Get an environmental impact study done," Albertsen says. "If the EIS comes back from a credible third-party source and says this is not going to be a problem, then fine. From there people can intelligently make decisions. They can move out, wear gas masks, whatever."

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From the April 28-May 5, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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