Army investigating potential radiation hazard at Fort Bliss
By ROBERT MOORE | EL PASO TIMES Published: July 16, 2013
EL PASO, Texas — The military is investigating a potential radiation hazard at a Cold War-era nuclear weapons bunker near El Paso that has been used to store training weapons since 2003, Army officials said Tuesday.
Officials believe the risk to the broader community is “fairly negligible,” though people who worked in the bunker might face more significant risk, said Fort Bliss spokesman Maj. Joe Buccino. One particular worry would be ingestion of chips of epoxy paint used to seal off such bunkers, which might have become loose over the years as equipment, including machine guns and rifles, was moved in and out.
There have been no reports of illness related to the contamination, but he said that at the moment, “We are quite frankly unable to assess the level of risk.”
All activity in the area has been suspended until an investigation and any necessary cleanup has taken place, Buccino said. The Army doesn’t know how long those steps will take, he admitted.
An investigation in recent weeks found levels of alpha and beta radiation in the bunker, used by the Air Force to store nuclear bombs, though not more-dangerous gamma radiation, Buccino said. “We sealed it, we closed it off,” he said.
In addition to the contamination found in the bunker, Army Environmental Command is searching for radioactive material reportedly buried nearby in sealed containers reportedly 12 to 18 inches below the ground, following Air Force regulations of the 1950s and 1960s, Army officials said.
Fort Bliss has more than 32,000 soldiers and 11,000 civilian employees, making it the nation’s second-largest military installation after Fort Hood, Texas. When combined with White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico, it has 3.3 million acres of training area, about 25 percent of the Army’s total training space.
Information obtained by the El Paso Times indicates the radiation was found inside Building 11507 at Biggs Army Airfield, part of a complex of nine igloo-style bunkers in an area known as “Snake Pit.”
The irradiated bunker and other nearby bunkers that once were used to assemble nuclear bomb sections are used to store equipment for National Guard units that are preparing for deployment.
The testing was ordered after an Air Force veteran who served at Biggs in the 1950s recently told military officials about an incident involving nuclear weapons waste that was generated during maintenance. He said the bunker floor was painted over to mitigate possible radioactive particles.
Another retiree told a similar story, according to information obtained by the Times.
One of the two men said he was concerned that with growth planned at Fort Bliss, he was concerned family housing could be built nearby, Buccino said. Base officials never considered building housing in the area, Buccino added. Recent tests by an Air Force physicist found low levels of alpha and beta particles on the building floor.
The investigation is continuing into the extent of possible radioactive contamination in other bunkers used to store nuclear weapons at Biggs in the 1950s, Buccino said. He said it wasn’t clear what impact the radiation levels might have on future operations at Fort Bliss, which took over the Biggs land when the Air Force closed the base in 1966.
The Army is trying to track down former military and civilian workers at the site, and has established a 24-hour call center for anyone who believes they came in contact with radiation or may have been effected by it. Those concerned can call 915-744-1255, 915-744-1962, 915-744-8263 or 915-744-8264.
Fort Bliss saw the largest gains of any military post in the 2006 Base Realignment and Closure process, adding almost 20,000 soldiers. Much of that growth was in the old Biggs Air Force Base area east of El Paso International Airport.
Biggs Air Force Base was part of the Strategic Air Command, the Air Force’s atomic bomber fleet, from 1948 to 1966. The base housed a variety of nuclear-capable bombers during the Cold War, including B-29s, B-36s, B-47s and B-52s.
Stars and Stripes’ Chris Carroll contributed to this report.