Another Fine Mess

The water was dark and murky, nearly black in the dense shade. The surface, nearly still, slightly rippled by unseen small fish or insects, and vegetation crept out from the muddy shore. A small flat wooden bridge spanned a twenty foot reach of the swamp, connecting rutted dirt roads. The jungle vegetation and likelihood of snakes and alligators waiting just below the surface sent shivers down my spine.

This Florida military base had expanded through the post-war years into the surrounding swamps, and then gradually shrank as war efforts shifted and tactics changed. There was plenty of information to be gathered as part of our project to identify environmental problems — specifically contamination. As part of our study of potential contamination, we found a couple of cases with particularly interesting health and safety issues.

My experience with the military had led me to understand that they historically had little regard for management and control of chemicals and wastes. Why worry about long-term issues if you were going off to war in a few days or weeks? However, the military did have systems, accounting and procedures that they followed rigorously, so documentation usually existed about what had been dumped, leaked, spilled or lost. While it could be eye-opening, in my experience it was seldom purposely hidden or denied.

A restricted forty-acre field of grass had been designated for the destruction of out-of-date ammunition. The process called for units with excess ammunition to drive to the field and place the ammo boxes beside the road. Then the operator would be informed where and what had been delivered. Unfortunately, depending on the time of year and rainfall, parts of the field were extremely boggy, and on occasion the reported deliveries had not been located. It was presumed that they had sunk into the muck and vegetation.

A bunker in the middle of the field held unused ammo from the civil war that had to be disposed. Cartridges and most shells could be detonated or burned, but the old black powder cannon balls were more difficult. The site operator had installed a free-standing drill press in the middle of the field that was rigged with weights to pull the drill bit into the cannon ball. A stream of water directed at the drill to cool the metal as the bit cut into the center of the ball and to wet and flush out the powder. It was all remotely operated, since the instability of the materials made it highly dangerous.

This system worked on the first few cannon balls; however at one point the water stream slipped unknowingly. The subsequent explosion destroyed the cannon ball, but also left a small crater and propelled the larger part of the drill press several hundred feet into the air.

The old wooden bridge had been used in the past as a short cut for moving some materials across the base. Unfortunately, the bridge was narrow and without rails or side curbs. A truck had failed in its attempt to cross when the left rear wheel slipped off the edge, and the load was dumped into the stream. The live mortar rounds had spilled out of their boxes and sunk into the mud and muck at the bottom.

It was felt that most of those shells had been recovered by Navy Seals. We accepted the offer to interview the team leader and review his written report. As a former athlete, I was pretty familiar with hard body types; however, the Seal we met with was physically awesome and totally intimidating. He walked us through the process they used to recover the shells.

They inventoried how many shells were lost, and felt that they had recovered most, but not all of them. It was too murky to see underwater, so they had to find them by feel. They started out wading the edges of the stream barefoot to feel for the shells in the muck. (At this point I had to force myself to not imagine what terrors they could have encountered, but it got worse.)

As the stream deepened toward the middle, where most of the shells ended up, they were wading waist, then chest, deep. The bottom was mostly mud and decades of decayed vegetation, including branches and all kinds of unknown bits and pieces. They had to handle the found shells carefully, since it was possible, if unlikely, that they could be detonated if struck wrong.

Finally, it became too deep to walk, feel the bottom and keep their heads above water. Their expedient solution was to have one man bend over underwater, and a second stand on his back to hold him down as he slogged through the muck.

This process was time consuming and fraught with discomfort and interruption, but they finally completed checking the whole stream bottom. Since it was not exactly clear how many shells were lost originally, it wasn’t certain that every one was recovered. However, the small uncertainty did not justify the additional effort required to eliminate it.

As for me, it would have taken a lot of Seals plus the whole military complex to get me to wallow around in that swamp barefoot, trying to be careful not to kick a live mortar round. I’m just glad that there are people brave and tough enough to do those jobs, so I don’t have to. Give me TCE, VOC’s, PCB’s or radium any day.

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