75-year-old ordnance cleared from schoolyard
A fireball that lit the skies around Morgan Depot on Oct. 4, 1918, is still haunting the residents of Midlesex County, N.J., today.
The cause of the fireball was an explosion that destroyed the Gillespie Ammunition Plant, the largest load and pack production plant in the world during World War I. Approximately 12 million pounds of explosive compounds, more than 300,000 loaded artillery shells and numerous rail cars and buildings were destroyed in a series of explosions that killed more than 50 civilians. The fallout still lies scattered in the backyards, forests and school yards of Sayreville, N.J.
The tragedy of 1918 that brought together a stunned community, the Ordnance Division of the U.S. War Department and fire and emergency medical support has inspired a similar union today. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s Huntsville Division and New York District, government contractors and borough managers of Sayreville have joined forces to clear 75 acres of explosive debris.
Roland Belew, technical project manager from Huntsville Division, and Sayreville Mayor John McCormick have worked since November 1993 to inform residents about suspected problems and to coordinate the removal of ordnance and the evacuation of residents living near the contaminated sites. Belew’s team focuses on two time-critical projects — the grounds of the Eisenhower Elementary School and the undeveloped area across the street from the school. The target date for completing the time-critical projects hinged on the beginning of the 1994-95 school year for Eisenhower Elementary School on Sept. 7.
The Environmental Protection Agency conducted a ordnance and explosive waste (OEW) sampling in August 1993 as part of an investigation of privately owned munitions plant sites. The survey found 12 75-mm shells and one 8-inch diameter shell in the undeveloped area across from the school.
New York District Life Cycle Project Managers Maj. Stephen Ressler and Silvio Calisi responded quickly to coordinate evacuations and local police efforts. On August 8, after the work plan was developed and key players were assigned, ordnance removal experts from UXB International of Chantilly, Va., under the guidance of Dusty Rhodes and Tom Baksa of Hunstville Division, started searching the 15-acre school site.
The actual removal process began with subsurface sweeps. Unexploded ordnance specialists used hand-held magnetometers (metal detectors) to scan the designated terrain. Each anomaly or “hot spot” (e.g., nail, bottle caps, cans, artillery fuzes or live shells) registered by the magnetometer was flagged for investigation.
During a two-day search, over 1,000 “hot spots” were indicated. By the last day of August, 6,805 anomalies were flagged and dug up for inspection on the school grounds, uncovering one 3-inch mortar, three 74-mm shells, one 4.7-inch diameter empty shell and 15 explosive adapter boosters. All items were dug up by hand and destroyed at Fort Dix, N.J.
The cumulative ordnance found in the area across from the school included one 3-inch diameter Stokes mortar, two 75-mm shells, two 155-mm shells, one 9.2-inch diameter shell and 103 adapter boosters. The 9.2-inch shell, weighing 300 pounds, was discovered the first day of the search and transported to Fort Dix for detonation.
During August, the schoolyard of Eisenhower Elementary School was successfully cleared, and school grounds were restored to their original condition.
Ongoing work involves 60 acres near the school — an area targeted for development of high-density housing. Searchers will use magnetometers over the entire site, and all anomalies will be flagged and dug up for removal and inspection. Ordnance specialists will continue to provide expert assistance in the clean up of these 60 acres.
Belew considers the progress made during the time-critical projects exceptional. “There are always snags that develop in projects that have a broad scope coupled with time constraints,” he says, “but, for the most part the cooperation among Huntsville Division, New York District project supervisors and the city of Sayreville has been outstanding.”
Ressler agrees. “The Mayor and Borough Council have contributed extensive and exemplary service in support of this project,” he says. “In our view, our excellent working relationship with the borough has brought this phase of the project to a successful end, and we hope to continue relying on them for future removal efforts.”
An engineering evaluation and cost analysis is being done on the remaining 3,000 acres of the plant site to determine if additional action is appropriate. That study will be completed by the end of 1995.