Thursday, April 22, 1999
How''s this for a track record? The first time the Army embarked on a controlled burn at Fort Ord, the blaze ranged out of control, scorched 400 acres of maritime chaparral and other native fauna, and dumped plumes of orange smoke throughout Salinas Valley.
The second time, the burns were stopped after surrounding neighborhoods were blanketed with foul-smelling smoke that induced coughing fits and asthma attacks, and kept the children at nearby Spreckels School indoors with the windows locked.
"It was just unbelievable,'''' Joan Hillard, the Spreckels school district superintendent, says about the day in September 1998 when the smoke came in low and thick and settled in the school yard. "We had ashes all over the school."
These burns, say represenatives for the Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District board, are no longer acceptable. In March, the air pollution board notified the Army that it intends to file a lawsuit forcing the use of something other than fire to clear brush from thousands of acres at Fort Ord. The burns are one way the Army clears land so people using super-sensitive metal detectors can check for unexploded ordnance.
"They [the Army] have plans to do more burning until they change their minds," says Ed Kendig, manager of the air board''s compliance division. "There isn''t anything that has been shown to them or hammered into them to persuade them that what they''re doing has got to stop."
The suit will be the second time the air district has asked the courts to intercede. The first suit, filed in 1997, after the 1996 burn raged out of control, resulted in a settlement that required the Army to use "smoke management" techniques to mitigate the effects of the smoke. Those techniques failed in 1998, and Kendig says air district officials now believe the burns must stop altogether.
The air district isn''t alone in that view.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter to the Army in November, asking that it hold off future burns until local agencies "could sit down and discuss a lot of issues,'''' says Rich Seraydarian, a section chief in the EPA''s Superfund Division.
And a vocal contingent of activists say officials are ignoring the real risks of the smoke--the poisoning of our air, crops and water.
"People are not aware of what''s in that cloud,'''' says Linda Millerick, a member of Save Our Air Resources, or SOAR, a grassroots group working to stop the burning.
But convincing the Army to use different alternatives may be a difficult task. Officials say the burns are essentially a last-ditch effort used on areas believed to contain high concentrations of ordnance.
"The reason we''re going in to clean up stuff the military left behind is that some of this stuff blows up," says Kevin Siemann, an Army environmental scientist at the Presidio of Monterey. "If you have people in some of those areas and they''re doing mechanical clearance with chain-saws or weedwhackers, then you''re putting people at risk.''''
In other areas, such as those slated for habitat protection, burning is the most ecologically sound method of clearance.
Siemann says burning has been used sparingly in cleanup efforts. He estimates that between 700 and 800 acres have been cleared by burning (not including the 400 acres that went up by accident during the first "controlled" burn), while an additional 2,400 or more acres have been cleared by mechanical or manual means.
Another roughly 8,000-acre parcel, which is mostly earmarked for habitat protection, is slated for burning, Siemann says, while another 1,000 to 2,000 acres will be cleared mechanically. The process could take as long as 20 years.
Regardless of how long it takes, SOAR members say the burning must stop. They maintain that the smoke contains a deadly cocktail of toxics ranging from benzene to uranium.
SOAR member Christine Bettencourt--who says she developed a series of health problems after living next to Ford Ord for years and has since moved to Arroyo Seco--says she''s analyzed the Bang Box Study the Army used to determine if the burning is safe, and she says it proves ordnance should be destroyed in an incinerator to prevent the release of dangerous chemicals.
"They poisoned us without documentation,'''' she says. "They don''t know what they''re doing.''''
But Siemann, Kendig and the EPA''s Seraydarian say SOAR''s charges aren''t true.
"All the evidence says that the fear of toxics from the ordnance itself is a red herring," Kendig says. "The degree of pollutants released just by the burning of vegetation is monumental and is a serious health concern."
Kendig says the vegetation burn alone "produces a whole host of different kinds of toxic and carcinogenic compounds," including carbon dioxide and creosote.
So far, no studies have been done to analyze smoke-related toxic hazards. But even without these studies, the status of future burns is murky.
Capt. Will Koon, chief of Administrative Law at the Presidio of Monterey, says the prescribed burning season doesn''t begin until July, and the burning policy may be affected by the air district''s lawsuit, or by the settlement of a previous lawsuit brought against the Army by the Fort Ord Toxics Project and the California Public Interest Research Group. In that latter settlement, the Army agreed to perform a new study on the removal of unexploded ordnance from Fort Ord, a federal Superfund site.
In the event of future burns, Siemann says, the Army now has more information on smoke management that he believes will result in less of a problem for the public.
For some, that''s not enough.
"They can put men on the moon, but they say they can''t figure out how to clear the brush without blowing people up?" Bettencourt asks. "That''s baloney, and we''re paying the price with our own breath."