In dealing with old bombs, the motto is 'recognize, retreat, report'

El Malpais National Monument features La Ventana Natural Arch, the largest of New Mexico's readily reached natural arches. but it also contains some potentially deadly surprises.


By MADDY HAYDEN | Albuquerque Journal, N.M. | Published: October 22, 2018

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — When it was time to train our boys for World War II, the military used thousands of sites around the United States.

That included dropping a heck of a lot of bombs; some were made just for training, but others were the real deal.

More than 250 Formerly Used Military Sites, or FUDS, sit right here in New Mexico.

“This was basically a training ground for bombers,” said Mark Phaneuf, a geologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Albuquerque.

And while the areas used for target practice were located in remote and isolated areas, some haven’t stayed that way.

One site used by the Kirtland Army Air Field bombardier training program in 1943 has since become part of the El Malpais National Monument – and officials are still trying to determine the best way to deal with it.

In 1943, the U.S. Army acquired 9 square miles in the lava fields near Grants for use as the final test for pilots who had graduated from the bombardier program.

The “bull’s-eye” was McCartys Crater, a target that pilots tried to hit with 100-pound, general purpose bombs.

While only 36 inches long, each bomb packs quite a punch.

“I mean, it’d take out this building,” said Michael Hernandez, an ordnance and explosive safety specialist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Albuquerque office, during a public meeting late last month at El Malpais Information Center.

The Corps of Engineers oversees FUDS remediation efforts.

The Army soon realized that the rough volcanic terrain there made it too difficult to maintain as a bombing range and stopped using the site after just 10 months.

But left behind were the bombs that didn’t explode on impact: the “duds.”

It’s unknown how many such explosives were left behind, but bombs have been found at the site on a fairly regular basis since the FUDS remediation program began in the mid-1980s.

National Park Service employees discovered one in 1986, and they found three in 1989.

Those bombs were detonated in place by an explosive ordnance disposal team.

Twenty-five were destroyed after site sweeps by the Alabama Army National Guard in 1994 and 1995.

The last time a bomb was found was in 2010, when El Malpais resources management chief Steve Baumann was assisting with a wildfire at the monument.

“I saw this taxi-cab yellow object which was very much out of context, and I thought, ‘I think I know what that is,’ ” he said. “I got on the radio and said, ‘Guys, we’re leaving.’ ”

The military has conducted multiple investigations at the site to determine a final remediation strategy.

The last site visit was in 2015 and involved a grueling eight-hour hike that left two people injured. No marked trails are in that area of the park.

In part because of that extreme remoteness, the Corps of Engineers has recommended ultimately taking an “educational awareness” approach, ceasing any future active search operations.

Mitzi Frank, superintendent of El Malpais and El Morro national monuments, said staffers there support the proposal.

“I think that’s the best way to mitigate the situation,” Frank said. “We’ll work with them to put up signs at our trailheads on what to do if you find an ordnance.”

Once the plan is in place, it will be reviewed every five years to determine whether any new technologies could be used to more easily recover munitions and if any land use changes are planned, said Greg Lyssy of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which works alongside the Corps of Engineers on FUDS.

“The other options that we’ve looked at just don’t make a whole lot of monetary sense and they’re not going to improve the protectiveness really,” he said.

©2018 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)
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