Thursday, September 19, 2002
A toll-free information line, set up to provide up-to-the-minute news flashes about the Army''s plans to burn brush at Fort Ord, is way behind the times: "There are no prescribed burns scheduled for the year 2001. Thank you!," says what sounds like a young woman''s voice.
Public relations may not be what Army is best at, and there may not have been any prescribed burns on schedule for 2001. But there are burns on the schedule in 2002.
Pending the completion of an official document known as a Record of Decision, to be signed among relevant government agencies, the Army plans to light a 500-acre blaze in old training ranges east of Seaside some time before winter rains. The ranges were used through the late 20th century to train soldiers in the use of combat hardware, and the land remains littered with untold amounts of mortar shells, rockets, artillery rounds, grenades and bullets. Some of the projectiles detonated as they were designed to and some did not, leaving shrapnel as well as dangerous duds--known as unexploded ordnance or UXOs--scattered across the ranges.
These duds are hidden under acres of dense coastal shrubbery. The Army wants to burn off the brush--mostly made up of maritime chaparral--so it can first detect and then dispose of the military detritus.
The Army''s track record of setting controlled burns at Fort Ord is spotty. In 1996, a controlled burn ran away, consuming 400 acres beyond the planned burn area. Fires in 1998 choked the Salinas Valley with smoke. It was bad enough that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrote the Army asking that it cease burns until it had examined all choices for clearing the brush and had studied the potential health effects from smoke.
The Monterey Bay Unified Air Pollution Control District sued the Army after the 1998 fires, citing public health concerns. A federal judge found that the district did not have jurisdiction in a Superfund site, but the Army agreed to conduct a study to determine how to conduct the burns more safely.
The Army is planning a burn this fall. Not everyone waits enthusiastically.
"We''re not happy with their decision but there is nothing we can do about it," says Ed Kendig, compliance officer for the air pollution district. "Every one of these burns just whacked all the downwind communities in the Salinas suburbs, and down the valley. Spreckels and Toro Park were hard hit. It''s hard on people, especially people with respiratory complications."
Some opponents to the Army''s burn plans claim that the remaining ordnance will emit dangerous chemicals and toxins during the burns. Kendig, however, says the perceived danger of ammunition consumed in a range fire does not exist.
"That''s just not true. It doesn''t make any sense," he says. "Nobody is going to notice anything from incidental detonation of ordnance. That''s what''s real."
The real danger, he says, comes from the woodsmoke. "It''s terrible. There is all kinds of bad stuff in it and there''s plenty of it," Kendig says. "This is thickly vegetated area. There''s going to be a lot of smoke."
Prescribed burns in the past were ignited on days when an onshore breeze blew the smoke down to the ground and inland. This year the plan is to set up for different meteorological conditions--a light offshore breeze and weak inversion, although an offshore breeze on the Monterey Peninsula is a very rare event. The idea is that the fire will burn fast and send the smoke straight up.
Some of those watching the process think it looks good on paper, but the Army may be waiting for weather and wind that never comes.
The Army has held a number of workshops on the burn plan, including one last week at Stilwell Hall.
The Army is also offering to find a hotel room for anyone who fears the smoke. Details are available at www.fortordcleanup.com.
John Chesnutt works exclusively on Fort Ord environmental matters for the EPA. Chesnutt says any toxins emitted from burned ordinance will fall below EPA screening levels. Once the paperwork is done and the weather is right, the Army plans to notify the public, marshal the firelighting-firefighting forces it needs and temporarily relocate the people who request it.
With a history of missteps, the 2002 burn is key.
"A very successful burn is very important to the Army," Chesnutt says. "They want a successful burn more than anything."