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Navy investigating threat of old ammo at academy, support base

ANNAPOLIS, Md. — In the 1800s, sailors and crowds of Annapolitans would smile and clap as shells flew across the Severn River into the Chesapeake Bay and on to firing ranges across Navy land.

But now the Navy is investigating former ranges around the Naval Academy and Naval Support Activity Annapolis to find out whether gunpowder, clay targets or ammunition debris remain in the soil, posing a threat to people or the environment.

The Navy-funded investigation could last more than 10 years and require testing in the bay and the Severn, near Bancroft Hall at the academy, and at NSAA, including backyards where children play.

Some of the firing ranges date to the late 1700s. Officials have had to determine what guns were tested and how they were used to figure out where bullets and other munitions may be found.

But before contractors go out with shovels, Naval Facilities Engineering Command wants to hear from people who might know where shots were once fired.

“You can imagine the records going back that far. Pretty sketchy,” said Ginny Farris, who works for Washington, D.C.-based CH2M HILL, the project’s prime contractor.

The Navy has identified more than 10 sites at NSAA and the academy where ammo, gunpowder and clay targets could be buried.

The guns ranged from 9mm pistols to heavy artillery that used 1-pound to 15-inch shells. The sites range from thin one-mile stretches for snipers to floating platforms off the Santee Basin. And the times of the activity range from the late 1700s to the 1980s.

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The Department of Defense has required each of the thousands of investigated sites be assigned a score to determine which will get cleanup money first. Scores range from one to eight, with one indicating the most serious hazards.

Initially, the Navy rated most sites in Annapolis eight. But the former Naval Proving Ground at NSAA, where heavy artillery was tested from 1872 to 1892, received a two — the highest rating possible at a site that does not have chemical warfare materials.

Officials said the proving ground, a mostly wooded area south of where Alder Road comes to an end, received such a high score because shells have been found on the surface in recent surveys.

Several sites at the academy, grouped together, scored a four because of ranges that required sailors to shoot directly into the Severn and the bay, officials said.

The former Fort Severn Battery and Parade Grounds was used to test rifles and all kinds of artillery from the 1700s to the early 1900s, and was later developed as Bancroft, MacDonough and Dahlgren halls.

North Severn Village, a military housing complex, covers land used for skeet and trap ranges in the 1930s to the 1940s. Farris said contractors and the Navy will work with residents who may have to deal with digging in their backyards.

The bulk of the weapons used at the site were 12-gauge shotguns. No munitions were discovered during construction of the community, and the site was given a priority score of eight.

Scores will be updated after site investigations and collection of soil samples through next year. At that point, the Navy will have determined if there is any risk to human health or the environment.

The Navy will be working with the state Department of the Environment to determine if additional investigations or cleanups are needed.

Officials said it was highly unlikely there are live bullets or other munitions on Annapolis soil. Any threat discovered will be from chemicals released by munitions over the years, they said.

In 2008, a Virginia man died when the 9-inch, 75-pound naval cannonball he was restoring exploded. It was reported then that Union and Confederate troops lobbed an estimated 1.5 million artillery shells and cannonballs at each other from 1861 to 1865. As many as one in five were duds.

The scores and descriptions of the sites are available at the Annapolis branch of the Anne Arundel County Public Library on West Street and at Nimitz Library at the Naval Academy.For more information, contact Matthew Klimoski, the environmental program director for NSAA and the academy. He can be reached at 410-293-1025 or at matthew.klimoski@navy.mil.
 

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