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Scorched Earth

[whitespace] Person in a gas mask
George Sakkestad

Heavy Breathing: Residents from Fort Ord to Salinas are inflamed about the Army's method of burning unspent ordanance and other military detritus to clear land that was once used for military training exercises.

The Army is setting fire to Fort Ord to clear it of unexploded munitions. Beware, Monterey County neighbors say, of the black plume By Cecily Barnes

BARRY CALLENBERGER WOKE UP in a campsite on Sept. 17 to a typically gorgeous Central Coast day: sunshine and low clouds, a high of 68 degrees and predictable 20-knot winds. A perfect day, he thought, to turn 150 ordnance-littered acres of the former military training ground at Fort Ord Army Base into prime real estate.

Callenberger, a fire chief with North Tree Fire, a professional controlled-burning company, was hired to set fire to the grounds in order to rid it of 11,763 cartridges and belts, 66 live explosives such as grenades and sticks of dynamite, 29 expended explosives and other volatile detritus left by the military when the base was closed in 1994.

Callenberger and nearly 20 other firefighters ignited the fire, stepped back and watched the greenish-black smoke plume rise into the air.

Hot flames would soon consume the thick chaparral brush, exposing unexploded ordnance and sending any traces of benzene, toluene or other chemicals into the sky. Afterward, workers could go in and manually extract the bulk of the ordnance without risking their lives. Then the land would be transferred to the towns of Marina, Seaside, Del Rey Oaks and Monterey County for shopping centers, office buildings, a golf course, housing complexes, schools and other uses.

The burn went according to plan for about two hours. Then something went awry.

An unexpected offshore breeze assaulted the plume, pushing it hard inland and down onto local communities.

Nineteen-year-old Stacie Halas stared in awe at the plume heading toward her from the window of her California State University­Monterey Bay dorm room, northwest of the burn site.

The plume drifted behind the campus and into the Salinas Valley.

Helen Johnson, who lives in the Creekside Condominiums along the Highway 68 corridor in Salinas, saw it coming from her backyard.

"It was sunny and then suddenly this gray overcast," Johnson remembers.

Callenberger halted the burn, but portions of the land, already on fire, continued to smolder. The plume blew into the 750-person community of Spreckels, located 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," she says. "It was that thick."

In March, dozens of incensed residents gathered at a meeting of the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District board to demand answers. Why, they wondered, had board members permitted the burn to go on? The answer was they hadn't.

The board had, in fact, sued the Army in 1997 to stop the burning, and by the end of the meeting they voted to do so again.

"We sued [in 1997], saying that under our regulations, you cannot burn," says Doug Quetin, air pollution control officer with the district. "We asked [a] federal judge for a temporary restraining order, and he denied it."

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.

Because studies show that most of the ordnance is trapped between two and 10 feet beneath the ground, the EPA says that very little of it actually gets burned.

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.

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."

The EPA bases the acceptability of burning 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 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.

Although it was forced to withdraw its first suit, the air pollution control district managed to get the Army, in conjunction with the EPA, to promise to notify the community in advance 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.

Pyro Techniques

CONTROLLED BURNS at Fort Ord began soon after the last military personnel packed up their footlockers and moved off the base in 1994, leaving nearly 8,000 acres embedded with the deadly leftovers of training exercises. Since then, at least seven sites have been burned: two in 1994, two in 1995, one in 1997 and two in 1998. Fort Ord was declared a federal Superfund site in 1990.

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 to 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.

But a flurry of lawsuits may smother future burning.

The Army settled a suit in November filed by a group of independent critics called the Fort Ord Toxics Project by agreeing to conduct what is called a Remedial Investigation Feasibility Study.

Ironically, while the study goes on, the Army is free to continue burning.

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 fallen ill too, suffering from 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, a registered nurse 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.

Playing With Fire

A FEW MONTHS AGO, a pack of Fitch Middle School students crossed into an "off-limits" Fort Ord 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.

Next time, however, it might, warns Richard Seraydarian, section chief of the EPA's Superfund Division.

"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."

Del Rey Oaks Mayor Jack Barlich, who sits on the Fort Ord Reuse Authority board, believes the burning is necessary.

"I don't like the process of the cleanup being delayed," Barlich says. "Each day it's being delayed you're flirting with disaster." While he says someone could wander onto the 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."

The Army, the EPA and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control have received letters from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Assemblymember Fred Keeley and the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District opposing the burning or requesting more study.

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 burned into the ground," she says. "It will be in the dust, it will be everywhere."

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From the May 13-19, 1999 issue of Metro.

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