• 66°

Machine is expediting EPA cleanup

An automatic sifter is shearing years off the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ cleanup of the former Nansemond Ordnance Depot in northern Suffolk.

The shifter, in use on the 975-acre site since September, is allowing the munitions cleanup to move six times faster than originally planned, said Rick Aiken, a project spokesman. That portion of the project was anticipated to last until 2010; that completion date has since been revised to 2008.

The chemical portion of the cleanup is not expected to be finished before 2011, he added.

The military used the old 1914 depot, located on the grounds of Tidewater Community College’s Portsmouth campus and a former General Electric plant, to recycle munitions from World War I and II. Since the property was added to the federal government’s Superfund National Priority List six years ago, nearly $30 million has been spent on the cleanup.

The site hit the environmental spotlight in 1987, when a chunk of the explosive TNT was found near TCC’s soccer field. It’s not uncommon for live munitions to be found on the property; a hunk of TNT the size of a Volkswagen Beetle has been found in years past, said Cliff Walden, site supervisor with Zapata Engineering, the firm handling the cleanup.

The Corps was unsure that the automatic sifter, usually used in dryer areas, would be effective on the Suffolk site.

“We have been pleasantly surprised,” said George H. Mears, the Corps’ project manager. “We had doubts as to whether it would work up here because there is so much mud and muck in this area.”

Until getting the automated sifter, crews manually went through about 25 cubic yards of contaminated soil daily, Aiken said.

“With the automatic sifter, we’re able to go through about 150 cubic yards each day,” he said.

On Friday, as a bulldozer dumped a load of contaminated dirt into the sifter, Jerry Booth, an explosive safety officer, waited to sift through the debris that trickled down on a conveyor belt. Using a hoe, he carefully separated twigs and roots from the important items n remnants of grenades and other artillery left from the World Wars.

The load of dirt netted a good catch n a dozen or so 20 mm projectiles and a 75 mm projectile. Booth scraped the munitions into a bucket, where they will be stored until the following week’s scheduled denotation, Aiken said.

As of October 2005, the corps has removed 2,580 explosive items and 164,000 pounds of munitions-related debris, Aiken said.

The site, located on the Nansemond and James rivers near Interstate 664, is slated for business development. The city is in the process of buying 57 acres for use as a high-tech office park, said Tom O’Grady, the city’s economic development director.