Nearly a decade ago, staff at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in Fort Worth realized they had a problem.
Long before the Navy took over operations, the site was known as Carswell Air Force Base — a hub for training pilots and supporting heavy bombers during the Cold War. While the Air Force closed the base in 1994, environmental cleanups and oversight didn’t become the Navy’s responsibility until 20 years later.
Soon after assuming environmental duties, Navy staff found the Air Force had not yet conducted an inventory of what the Department of Defense calls “military munitions/unexploded ordnance” sites on the base. Those sites can range from former shooting ranges to fields containing partially detonated explosives used during training activities.
Through a 2015 assessment, the Navy discovered three contaminated sites across the base in northwest Fort Worth, according to Bob Fisher, the environmental restoration branch head for the Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command. The contaminated sites comprise a former skeet range; a former small arms pistol range; and a former machine gun range and rifle range located next to each other.
“Initially we had no documentation that any were there, but we suspected that there may be some because it was a pretty common practice for military installations, particularly those installations that had pilots, to have skeet ranges and other smaller ranges where they would practice and train their eye,” Fisher said.
Eight years later, Navy officials believe they’re rounding the corner on the cleanup process, with environmental remediation – including soil removal and replacement – planned in early 2023.
Ranges, like the three targeted for cleanup, pose environmental issues because they may have soil, groundwater and surface water contamination from the residue of explosives; heavy metals; and, in some cases, chemical agents, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Lead from the shotgun shells and a chemical used in skeet shooting targets were the main concerns for environmental and health risks at the Fort Worth base, Fisher said. The site was never used for exploding munitions, such as grenades or other bombs, according to a spokesperson for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Between 2016 and 2019, crews fully remediated the larger skeet range – known as UXO 1 – through disposing and renewing soil at the site, said Candy Pafford, a spokesperson for the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth. In 2021, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality approved cleanup of the site, according to an agency spokesperson.
Now, the Navy is focused on the two remaining sites. The machine gun and rifle ranges — the smallest of the three — are scheduled for soil removal and disposal this year, Pafford said. The area, known as UXO 3, will be remediated to the “unlimited use/unrestricted exposure” standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency so that the land could be used for any purpose, she added.
The small arms pistol range, called UXO 2, has been used as a parking lot since 1990, Pafford said. The parking lot was not constructed to function as a cap or part of the cleanup, Fisher said, but the lot is serving as a viable barrier to any contaminants. Navy officials want to incorporate existing structures as much as possible into the cleanup process, he added.
“The bigger picture for sites like this is that we look at what are the long-term beneficial uses of this property within the installation,” Fisher said. “That north central part of the installation is used for track and field. They’ve got baseball fields, so there’s a lot of recreation activities. We would tailor our cleanup activities to allow those types of activities to continue.”
Staff are still evaluating the levels of contamination and risk at the two remaining sites, Fisher said. Those remediation investigations should be completed over the next two years, but officials don’t anticipate a significant amount of cleanup will be necessary, he said.
The Navy is following federal protocol established to clean Superfund sites, or polluted areas that require a long-term response due to hazardous contamination. (The Fort Worth sites are not classified as Superfund sites).
Since the process can require a decade or more of cleanup, documentation and monitoring, the Navy may not fully close out these cleanups for several more years even if they are functionally safe for use, Fisher said.
If a site is not cleaned up to where it can be turned back over for residential use, then the Navy will have the responsibility of monitoring and ensuring the site does not endanger public health or the environment, he added. Sometimes that process can take 30 or more years.
“We retain responsibility for these contaminants in perpetuity,” Fisher said. “Whatever we need to do, we account for that in the way that we budget and plan, and we’ll make sure we stay engaged on these as long as we need to.”
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