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Former military sites littered with bombs

Lands equal to the size of Florida contain unexploded ordnance, watchdog group says. Cleanup will be costly.

Say "unexploded ordnance" and most Americans think of bombs still being unearthed in Europe 60 years after World War II.

Or the jungles and rice paddies of Laos, where thousands of aerial weapons and land mines left over from the Vietnam War still kill or injure about 250 people a year.

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But many places around the United States are littered with unexploded ordnance (UXO) as well - bombs, rockets, artillery rounds, grenades, mines, and other military munitions. Even though major battles have not been fought on US soil since the Civil War, such ordnance is the result of practicing for possible conflict.

That American servicemen and women need to "train the way they fight" is the Pentagon mantra. That means soldiers and marines firing live ordnance, Air Force pilots and naval aviators dropping real bombs.

According to government documents made public this week by a watchdog group, there are an estimated 16,000 military ranges containing unexploded ordnance. In total, they contaminate up to 40 million acres of land, an area larger than Florida, reports Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a private organization in Washington that works with government whistle-blowers.

Many of these places are retired military bases where cleanup is going on. It's an expensive process that can cost thousands of dollars per acre, sometimes adding up to hundreds of millions of dollars for a single site.

Most sites are in remote areas, but some are near population centers. Fort Ord in California, for example, is now the site of the Monterey Bay campus of California State University. A World War I Army chemical weapons site is in the Spring Valley neighborhood of Washington, D.C.

"The true magnitude of this unfolding ecological disaster is masked by the Pentagon's unwillingness to complete a reliable inventory or adopt credible cleanup rules," says PEER executive director Jeff Ruch.

The Defense Department acknowledges that "there are many significant scientific, policy, and technical challenges in responding to military munitions." And the Pentagon reports that "the scope and magnitude of the FUDS [formerly used defense sites] program are significant, with over 9,000 properties identified for potential inclusion in the program."

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Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Raymond DuBois told The Washington Post this week that the total tab for cleaning up UXO could range from $14 billion to "several times" that amount.

The cleanup push

With the US Army Corps of Engineers as the lead agency, the Defense Department has slowly been addressing the UXO problem. Progress has been made in some areas.

But PEER warns that while most of these sites are off-limits to the public, some have already been converted to civilian uses without adequate cleanup - some of these lands were transferred as military bases closed up around the country in the 1990s.

PEER's study cites Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents showing that Defense Department cleanups violate both civilian and Pentagon regulations and are plagued by "ill-advised short cuts to limit costs." According to one briefing document leaked to the watchdog group by an EPA employee, cleanup of the old military ranges "has the potential to be the largest environmental cleanup program ever to be implemented in the United States."

Both the Defense Department and the EPA deny the charges. But once the new Congress gets to work in January, there is likely to be a push for oversight.

"I am extremely concerned about these reports," says US Sen. Jon Corzine (D) of New Jersey, who has called for special hearings on the subject. "EPA documents have come to light that suggest that chemical and biological weapons may be present on many of these sites. Furthermore, recently released documents suggest that the federal government is not meeting its cleanup obligations under the law."

Environmental exemptions sought

All of this comes at a time when the Bush administration and many in Congress want to exempt the military services from key environmental-protection laws. Earlier this year, the Pentagon sought exemptions from federal environmental laws that protect water and air quality, endangered species, marine mammals, and migratory birds, as well as laws dealing with hazardous-waste cleanup.

In the end, the House-Senate conference report on the Defense Authorization bill stripped out all exemptions except for the one addressing the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

With Republicans now controlling both House and Senate, observers think it likely that the push for further exemptions will resume next year.