CO Neighbors Keep Wary Eye on Army Arsenal : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

In Colorado, Neighbors Keep Wary Eye on Troubled Army Arsenal By P. Solomon Banda Associated Press Writer

DENVER (AP) - When Jeff Kanost bought his home two decades ago, he was intrigued by the idea of having a wildlife refuge in his backyard. The former Rocky Mountain Arsenal, which bordered his newly acquired property, was being converted into a home for deer, owls, wolves and other wildlife.

But then came a series of unusual earthquakes, followed by disturbing revelations about hazardous chemicals, nerve gas and unexploded weapons - and Kanost's dream of an affordable home in pleasant surroundings evaporated.

"I'm concerned, but what can I do about it?" said Kanost, as he took a break from doing minor repairs on his pickup truck. "I can't go out there and take care of it. And I can't move. I can't go anywhere."

Most recently, cleanup crews at the old Army arsenal and chemical munitions factory found a "bomblet" containing the nerve agent sarin, which kills humans the same way pesticides kill bugs. Gov. Bill Owens has asked for a complete risk assessment.

Officials are testing a process to dispose of the bomblet called "chemical digestion," hoping to dissolve the aluminum casing in a caustic chemical that will also neutralize the nerve agent.

Officials believe the process would reduce the harm if the bomb accidentally exploded during handling and released sarin near Kanost's neighborhood of about 20,000. The bomblet was found about 2 1/2 miles from the nearest populated area and about 10 miles northeast of downtown Denver.

Since the bomblet was discovered, four others have been found in the same area. Investigators have not determined whether they also contain sarin.

While the lethal effects of sarin, used in a terrorist bombing on a Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed 12 people, are well documented, the effects of exposure to small amounts are unknown. The gas is suspected of causing illness among Gulf War veterans.

The first inkling Kanost had of the arsenal's troublesome past came in 1978, soon after he bought his house just off the arsenal's south boundary, when an earthquake rumbled through the region.

Geologists have said that earthquake and more than a thousand others recorded in the Denver area could have been caused by waste liquids injected 2 1/2 miles below the 27-square-mile arsenal by the Army.

Officials have denied any connection, but the Army stopped the practice in the 1960s in the wake of many of the earthquakes.

Through media coverage of the earthquakes, Kanost and his neighbors began learning the full extent of the arsenal's history.

One factory called the South Plant, built in 1943, manufactured mustard gas, blistering agents and napalm during World War II. It was later leased to the Shell Chemical Co., which manufactured herbicides and pesticides including DDT, which was banned in the early 1970s because of its harmful effects on the environment.

The factory has been dismantled and removed as part of a $2 billion cleanup expected to be completed by 2011.

Another factory called the North Plant was a classified military installation that manufactured sarin from 1953 to 1957 and later was used to destroy obsolete chemical weapons.

Demolition of the North Plant began recently, while cleanup continues on several sewers and other sites used to dispose of industrial waste.

Four years ago, cleanup crews found a sarin-filled bomb inside the walls of the North Plant. The bomb apparently had rolled off a conveyor belt during manufacture and wedged itself there, according to arsenal spokeswoman Ruth Mecham.

On Oct. 16, workers removing industrial waste from a scrap pile between the factories found the first M-139 bomblet, a grapefruit-sized sphere filled with 1.3 pounds of sarin.

A weapon known as the "Honest John" was designed to carry 368 of the bomblets, each of which was capable of killing people within 900 feet of detonation.

On Friday, a dispute arose between state officials and the Army about the process for disposing of the canisters.

The Army claimed a test explosion inside a small building intended to contain any accidental detonation was a success, and implied state health officials agreed with that assessment.

But Howard Roitman, of the state Department of Public Health and Environment, said the explosion blew the building's doors open, lifted the roof, knocked off the filters and blew several holes in the structure.

"It is misleading for the Army to characterize (damage) as 'slight' and to call it 'a positive indication' that the Army's plan is safe. It is the exact opposite," Roitman said in a letter to arsenal program manager Charles Scharmann.

Scharmann did not return phone calls Friday evening. In a statement, he defended the test results but apologized for implying state officials concurred.

Most of the arsenal remains prairie and a perfect habitat for wildlife, although tours of the wildlife refuge have been suspended while officials work to remove the bomblets.

"I wouldn't go on those tours. I wouldn't even let my kids go on those tours," Kanost said. "Would you?"

Meantime, some residents keep a sense of humor about the arsenal's dangers.

"My husband has lived in this neighborhood all his life and he seems to be OK," said Mary Reese, 35. "And people talk about two-headed owls, but I've never seen any."

-- cin (cin@cin.cin), November 18, 2000

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