Former Military Sites In Montauk And Westhampton Might Contain Hazardous Waste

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Eight former military installations on the East End, particularly in East Hampton and Southampton towns, might still have unexploded munitions and possibly hazardous waste, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Although many of the sites, including Montauk’s Camp Hero and Westhampton’s Francis S. Gabreski Airport, are generally safe, Chris Gardner, a spokesman for the New York Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the Army Corps is trying to have more studies done to find out if old military ordnance is at all present.

During World War II, many sites on the East End were used as training grounds for soldiers, airmen, sailors and marines and were frequently used to test new weapons and warfare capabilities.

Many of those sites—which were given over to private landowners, turned into public space, or are still used today for other private and military purposes—may not have been completely cleaned up when World War II ended and the sites were no longer needed. Because of that, the Department of Defense and the Army Corps are overseeing the environmental restoration of these properties, called Formerly Used Defense Sites, or FUDS.

The eight FUDS identified on the East End are: Camp Hero in Montauk, Fort Michie on Great Gull Island, Fort H.G. Wright and North Hill Fire Control Station on Fishers Island, the Suffolk County Air Force Base and the Army Airfield and Bombing and Gunnery Range in Westhampton, the Cartwright Island Bomb Target in Napeague, and the Naval Sub Base in Montauk—have not been deemed harmful. But a few—Camp Hero, Gabreski Airport, and the bombing and gunnery range—have been recommended for further study by the Army Corps. They say that more studies should be done to find out to what extent military munitions might be present at some of these sites, although a lack of funding has impeded the start of the studies.

Camp Hero State Park was part of the Long Island Harbor Defense System during World War II and was used as an Air Force station. The location near the bluffs in Montauk was chosen as protection against any invasion from the sea.

That site opened in 2002 as a state park. Its radar tower, old satellites and military installations are still very much a part of the park but have been either blocked off or boarded up.

Mr. Gardner said that remedial actions were taken to address munitions in 2003, and that the Army Corps returns periodically to check on the site, as it did in 2010. The Army Corps has done location surveys and mapped areas of interest using geophysical methodology, or “meandering path” calculations, to determine if there is any ordnance and explosive contamination.

George Gorman, the spokesman for the state’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which includes Camp Hero, said the Army Corps went through the park and did soil testing as well. Other than the munitions found in 2003, he said, there hasn’t been anything found, except for a few shell fragments.

The parks department has made a pamphlet available to visitors to the park called “What You Should Know When Visiting Camp Hero State Park.” The brochure details the site’s history, the Army Corps work within the park, and what to do if a visitor comes upon unexploded ordnance.

“When you see a UXO, stop. Do not move closer,” the text reads. “Never transmit radio frequencies near UXO. Avoid any area where UXO is located. If you come across any UXO, do not touch it.”

Mr. Gorman said that while people are advised not to go into areas that are overgrown, there still may be a chance that someone could stumble upon something.

“Due to the fact that the Corps has extensively gone through the property, we’re not concerned about munitions on site,” he said. “We advise the public that there many be munitions possibly through the remote areas where it’s overgrown, but the Army Corps did not find very many munitions in the area. Camp Hero is safe. We would not have opened it and kept it open unless it was safe.”

Mr. Gardner said Westhampton has its own FUDS at Gabreski Airport, although there haven’t been any verified munitions found at the site.

Before it became the Suffolk County Airport in 1969, and, later, Gabreski in 1991, the airport was used during World War II as a gunnery training base for fighter pilots and instructors. According to Mr. Gardner, after the war it was leased to a private citizen, and part of it was sublet to the Arab American Oil Company as a training base for its personnel heading to Saudi Arabia. During the Korean Conflict in 1951, the Air Force reactivated the site and used it until 1969.

According to Airport Manager Anthony Ceglio, practice munitions were found about two decades ago, but nothing has been found since.

He added that a low concentration of perchlorate, which is a toxic byproduct of rocket propellants and other aerospace materials, was found later, but since it was below a traceable amount, it didn’t require removal.

When they last inspected the site in 2008, the Army Corps recommended further evaluation there to determine the extent if any, in any of the areas east of the airport where homes would be within the larger FUDS footprint, he said.

But there may still be military munitions or contamination to be concerned about—the Army Corps and the State Department of Environmental Conservation may begin an Interim Risk Management program later in 2014 or in early 2015, Mr. Gardner said.

Mr. Ceglio said the airport is a low priority at this point in terms of remediation, however. “As far as the Suffolk County area and Westhampton, it was a low priority, because there’s not much chance of contamination or coming across these things,” he said.

The Suffolk County Army Airfield and Bombing and Gunnery Range in Westhampton may be up for further review as well later this year, but has been deemed a non-emergency as well.

Mr. Gardner said the site likely contains less-hazardous items since it was a practice range and is partially within the Central Pine Barrens, just two miles north of Westhampton Beach. He said because there is limited accessibility to that area, it’s further down on the list of priorities and therefore hasn’t gotten funding for further investigation.

Each year, approximately $238 million is budgeted for the FUDS program, of that, only $11 million to $12 million is doled out to the Army Corps’s New England District, which is in charge of New York and New Jersey sites, according to Heather Sullivan, the manager of that district’s FUDS program. She said Long Island currently has 20 FUDS locations.

“The FUDS program has hundreds of properties, and each property can have one or more projects,” she explained. “We try to prioritize. If there is an imminent risk to anybody, we will elevate those projects and get funding for them. Risk level, hazards and other information comes in to play and allocations of money are based on what’s needed at each site.”

She said how much each district is given is decided in Congress after review of the districts’ active projects. She said it’s difficult to get to everything since there’s little money.

The New England District has more than 50 active sites from which the Army Corps is actively working to remove hazardous waste and munitions, she added.

“Our program doesn’t get a lot of funding, so it’s really difficult to work on a lot of these sites,” she said. “We do the best with as much funding that we have.”

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