The contractor representative for the U. S. Corps of Engineers responsible for the latest proposal for site cleanup at the former Southwest Arkansas Proving Ground learned Tuesday night that the former World War II era munitions testing area remains a piece of quaint history in Hempstead County.
The contractor representative for the U. S. Corps of Engineers responsible for the latest proposal for site cleanup at the former Southwest Arkansas Proving Ground learned Tuesday night that the former World War II era munitions testing area remains a piece of quaint history in Hempstead County. Participants among the dozen or so attendees at a public hearing on the site cleanup for a 2,160-acre area currently known as the Wildlife Management Area told Zapata, Inc., Project Manager Ben Shivar, and Corps representatives that dangers still exist from unexploded ordnance all across the former 50,000 acre weapons testing area. With that understanding in mind, local residents are becoming complacent about the dangers because they are so rarely highlighted for the public, Hempstead County Quorum Court JP Danny Watson, Pat Rhodes, local SWPG restoration committee chair, and local landowners said a public education campaign was needed in Southwest Arkansas that embraced all forms of media. “We're getting a little complacent about the dangers that are still out there,” Rhodes told the gathering at the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope. She said there has always been a problem with “souvenir hunters” taking unexploded ordnance from the grounds, and that the problem is generational; but, the warnings concerning the dangers have not followed the same generational path. Munitions removal across Hempstead County through various Corps projects has been ongoing since shortly after World War II. Shivar said that public safety is a key goal of the cleanup process, noting that the current proposals for the cleanup in the Wildlife Management Area also emphasize the safety of Arkansas Game and Fish Commission employees who cultivate portions of the property for wildlife feeding areas. “That's why we're here,” Shivar said. “We've asked the public to comment on the proposed alternative to use it to help develop the best way to do it.” He said initial study over a series of grids established in the proposed cleanup area, using Digital Geophysical Mapping technology, covered a 37 mile linear area within the site, establishing the presence of at least 60 pieces of ordnance, with as many as 230 pieces of ordnance identified. “A wide variety of munitions were encountered during the investigation described,” Shivar said. He said unexploded and remnants of ordnance including 20 mm to 150 mm shells were targeted in the cleanup proposal. Shivar said no unexploded or remnant aerial bombs were found within the survey of the site. But, the nature of the site itself, an area of dense vegetation and cultivated feeding areas, is deceptive, Shivar admitted, adding that unexploded ordnance which fell in dense vegetation could not always be readily detected. “Our main concern in the proposal is to lessen the risk of danger these things can do,” he said. Consequently, Zapata has recommended that a program of subsurface clearance of ordnance be implemented, along with controlled access to the area by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “We are getting rid of the hazards in those areas that are cultivated by the Game and Fish Commission,” Shivar said. “We have discussed this with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission; they prefer Alternative Two, land use control by Game and Fish.” He said subsequent discussions with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency have led to “not a compromise, but a more feasible alternative,” which allows AGFC a continuing direct role in controlling access to the site. “It will stay a wildlife management area under their alternative,” he said.