TCC munitions cleanup slows

Published 11:12 pm Saturday, September 7, 2013

Agencies compete for leadership in long effort

A disagreement between government agencies over which will be the project lead has stalled the decontamination and restoration for future development of a North Suffolk site once used by the military to store ammunition.

Sher Zaman, overseeing the cleanup for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, reported at a restoration advisory board meeting Thursday that the standoff involving his agency, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has been ongoing for five or six months.

While all parties agree on what needs to be done to make the prime 975-acre site at the end of College Drive safe for future development, the project is stalled until the legal issue of which agency will be the project lead is resolved.

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“It we don’t get an agreement, the EPA will delist it as an NPL (National Priority List) site,” Zaman said.

The EPA reports it placed the site on its National Priorities List in 1999, when the board to advise on the cleanup — which gathered for its quarterly meeting Thursday at the Harbour View Courtyard Marriot — was formed.

The Corps’ latest plans involve excavating new areas of possible contamination by munitions and “explosives of concern” uncovered by a 2009 nor’easter and Hurricane Irene in 2011.

Geophysical mapping of a 150-foot swath of James River shoreline detected 55 areas of interest and 8,761 “single-item anomalies,” said Jeff Zoeckler, a manager on the project for the corps’ Norfolk division.

Now, the corps wants to use backhoes and shovels to “intrusively investigate” 33 areas of interest and 11 single-item anomalies, both on a bluff above the beach and on the beach itself.

“We just dig a trench and see what’s there,” Zoeckler said, adding that he thinks the Corps’ approach will be to remove any buried ordnance discovered.

“There are significant potential archaeological issues, so we will definitely have monitoring by our archaeological people.”

The corps also wants to award contacts for feasibility studies involving three separate sections of the site.

Sparring agencies hasn’t been the cleanup’s only challenge. Federal funds for the project were withheld due to sequestration. After $1.6 million was budgeted for fiscal 2013, allocations were frozen in February, Zaman said.

Initially, he said, $500,000 was provided just to keep existing operations alive, before a little more than $1.1 million was released in July.

Since 1987, 4,000 tons of munitions debris has been removed at an estimated cost of $56 million, according to Zaman. He estimated it would take a further $24 million to have the site ready for the commercial and residential development earmarked for it by 2019 — set as the delisting date.

The site’s history as an ordnance depot dates back to the U.S. Army’s initial purchase of 271 acres in September 1917, as a temporary storage site for 2.5 million pounds of artillery powder for the French, according to Army records cited by John Haynes, a resident archeologist with the corps’ Norfolk Division.

It also received, stored and shipped large quantities of ammunition during World War II, before the U.S. Navy declared it excess to requirements in 1960, and a large portion was developed as a community college.

Despite this background, Zoeckler doesn’t think the fresh probes will find a lot of potential explosives. “We don’t know if they are munitions of not,” he said of the hits during geophysical mapping, which used special instruments to peer at least 15 feet into the ground.

“I would bet that those we are going to investigate aren’t going to be munitions, just because of the debris on the shoreline.”

Various other decontamination activities are underway, all linked to the site’s former life as a military installation.

Plans by Tidewater Community College and the city of Suffolk to redevelop a large portion of the site are still being finalized, and its numerous other owners include General Electric, Dominion, Lockheed Martin and Sysco, according to the Corps.

The Corps has been working with state and federal partner agencies to finalize the legal framework for the project’s continuation since March, Zaman said. Removal actions, which he said are “typically done to take away the risk associated with an area,” have been possible without the framework as an interim measure, he added.

When they last met, on Aug. 2, the agencies resolved “essentially all the problems except one,” Zaman said.

“There’s no question what needs to be done, it’s only the legal aspect (of) who’s the lead agency,” he said. “I’m hoping in a month or so we can relieve these issues and get the proposed plan out.”

A stumbling block in reaching an agreement, Zaman said, has been that the Corps and the EPA have both enjoyed lead-agency status on previous cleanup operations at the site.

“That’s why we never had a clear picture of who was the lead agency,” he said.

Col. Paul Olsen, commander of the Corps’ Norfolk District, was a special guest at Thursday’s meeting. He said he gained insight into the challenges cleanups present as a Pentagon-based major managing a spreadsheet of EPA-listed restoration sites.

Those involved in the Former Nansemond Ordnance Depot cleanup should be proud with the 4,000 tons removed so far, he said.

“I can see the end, and it’s not too far away,” he said.