In February, a man in Wheatland, California, made an unsettling discovery while digging in his backyard garden: an M2K grenade, caked in clay. It’s uncertain how it got there, but Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialists from nearby Beale Air Force Base took possession of the grenade and safely detonated it at the base. No one was hurt, but the story serves as a reminder that California has more than gold in “them thar hills.”
Instances of civilians discovering old munitions at home in their garages and attics appear in the news fairly regularly, but they’re far more likely to be found in the ground, even on private properties. Fortunately, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District and its partner agencies are committed to discovering and removing hazardous remnants of past military activities before anyone else.
More than 10,000 former Department of Defense properties within the U.S and its territories have been identified as potentially posing some degree of risk to humans or the environment. The bulk of the sites are within the American Southwest, where expansive unpopulated areas served as locations for military training and weapons testing during the 20th Century. The sites range in size from as small as a football field to an area as large as New York City.
So far, more than half of the properties were determined to need cleanup efforts, of which about two-thirds have already been remediated. Still, that leaves many more sites to be inspected, investigated, and possibly cleaned up.
Once the former military sites were closed, they offered large parcels with open space and pre-existing infrastructure for potential new housing developments, recreational areas and businesses for communities experiencing huge population growth during the 1950s and 1960s. The sites were cleaned up according to the best practices at the time, and parcels were sold or transferred to private developers and other governmental entities.
But as Americans became more aware of the dangerous effects of pollutants residing in their land and waterways, laws like the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 were enacted to investigate and clean the country’s most highly contaminated sites. The Formerly Used Defense Site program was born from that act six years later, and USACE was charged with the responsibility of implementing it. The FUDS program investigates and, if necessary, addresses "hazardous substance contamination that was the result of DoD activities," to include munitions cleanup efforts.
Leading cleanup efforts throughout California, Nevada, and Utah, is a motivated and talented USACE Sacramento District FUDS team that has been remarkably successful in tackling about 50 projects during the past two years. FUDS budgets are primarily determined by three factors: Congressional funding, level of risk posed at the site, and FUDS team capabilities.
In fiscal years 2020 and 2021, the Sacramento FUDS annual budgets were each more than $20 million. That's about three times as much as they received annually in the previous decade. That’s a good indication that the team is on the right track.
When Anthony Reed joined the district as the FUDS section chief in early 2018, his work was cut out for him. He was immediately challenged to virtually rebuild his entire staff because of retirements and people seeking new opportunities. So he set out to hire multi-talented team players who could quickly unify and gain ground on projects that demanded progress.
"As a supervisor, I'm keenly aware that the success of every project or program hinges on the people managing the projects or program," said Reed, "so executing the right hiring actions when I joined the team became a critical element to realize success."
Reed's first big challenge was to find a program manager who could help the evolving team quickly bond and keep priorities in clear focus. In Chris Goddard, an environmental engineer who had been with the Corps for a decade, he found a "clear and obvious choice." And it didn’t take long for his decision to pay off.
Goddard quickly demonstrated his ability to help move tough projects forward. Within 15 months, he was awarded the Army Civilian Service Achievement Medal for helping the district make significant progress toward its goals. More recently, he was named the South Pacific Division’s program manager of the year, a prestigious award reserved for the best of the best.
Goddard says he's pleased with the progress the FUDS team has made during the past two years, but he emphasizes that it was a team effort.
"Our FUDS program funds almost 100 positions within the district, and they all contribute to our success in some way throughout the year. We get a ton of support from environmental engineering, planning, design branch, geology, and also from our safety and real estate sections,” added Goddard.
Most of all, Goddard credits the team's project managers with moving the progress needle toward the right, and he’s confident they’ll keep making steady progress.
Like all FUDS teams, they are acutely aware of how much remains to be done, and how quickly everyone wants it completed. Nevertheless, the methodical process required to get the work done right can make it slow going. A number of factors including the amount of property owners at a single site, locating those property owners, and, perhaps most of all, a willingness of individual owners to collaborate can all significantly add to the amount of time it takes just to determine if remediation is necessary.
Add to that, technical complexities that can vary widely between austere and incredibly rugged sites. So before geologists, chemists and geophysicists begin sampling soil or surveying areas with mobile magnetometers and drones, project managers need to convince property owners to grant them access to their property.
That single step is one of the most difficult and time-consuming challenges project managers face. Property owners often have questions. Sometimes lots of questions, and they want them answered before they agree to anything.
Tim Crummett, a project manager on the team, knows this is all too well. He’s currently overseeing a munitions cleanup project at the former Camp Beale, a 1940s-era Army and Air Force training area that encompasses about 43,000 acres just north of Sacramento.
While most of the site is owned by California and the National Park Service, making entry to a large part of it for the initial inspection relatively easy, the same can’t be said about the remaining area that has about 1,200 private property owners.
“So far, only half of the owners have agreed to our request to enter their properties,” said Crummett. “The owners sometimes want to know why bases weren't cleaned up sooner, or better dealt with before the property was turned over to new owners. Those are reasonable questions, so we provide as many answers as we can about the site’s history, and why there’s still important work to complete.”
The FUDS team tries to address those and other concerns during public meetings where environmental engineers, geophysicists, and representatives from state agencies help answer questions and detail project plans. Many questions also get answered through a call center that is specifically for people affected by higher risk FUDS projects.
“So we do our best to help them understand that once the cleanup is complete, not only are they safer, but the environment is cleaner and healthier for everyone,” said Crummett.
Stephen Pay, California Department of Toxic Substances Control's project manager for the Camp Beale project, is one of the Sacramento FUDS team’s key state agency partners. Pay said he helps make sure the district follows California law, which puts an emphasis on protecting people, wildlife and ecosystems.
"Our part is that of the regulator. We have the statutes and regulations that relate to environmental cleanup in California," said Pay. "One of our big concerns is the potential disturbance of sensitive and critical wildlife habitat, such as nesting birds."
Another big concern of the state is how to blow up unexploded ordnance in place, without making a bad situation worse. Because ordnance may contain lead, copper, or other metals that can impact the environment or human health, Pay said the DTSC ensures that steps are taken to limit and clean up any release of toxins.
"I think the whole agreement process works very well. We work in a cooperatively, not an adversarial relationship," said Pay, reflecting on DTSC's work with various military departments. “We all agree something needs to be done to clean up munitions, and together we're going to do it the best way we can."