Bomb Scare

Can the Army defuse a dangerous situation in Bastrop?
GROUND ZERO: The Army has uncovered armaments like these across the state.
Photograph by Brian Condike

It seemed like punishment for Brian Condike, an environmental chemist with the Army Corps of Engineers: stand in front of a room full of landowners, tell them that unexploded munitions might be on their property, and ask them to sign a release permitting the Army to dig up and explode any live devices it finds. Yet some weeks ago Condike obligingly, albeit nervously, drove to the pine-covered area near Bastrop that was occupied by Camp Swift until 1947. He calmly discussed the potential for unexploded bombs while alarmed residents listened wide-eyed to stories like this: "A few weeks ago in Mineral Wells a farmer was plowing a field that hadn't been worked in a long time, and he started turning up hand grenades. Over the course of two or three weeks, we turned up twenty-one hand grenades. The pins were out. These were live, and they could have gone off. The farmer first noticed the grenades when he saw two kids throwing them back and forth at each other." The Army has been identifying sites like Camp Swift since 1984, when it received funding from Congress to do so. It has been a remarkably slow process, however. The Department of Defense has found 160 potential problem areas in Texas, though only a handful have been investigated and cleaned up. Five of those sites—including Camp Swift—are considered "high priority," and 2 are currently being excavated: the former Camp Maxey, near Paris, and the former Camp Howze, near Gainesville. ("Up in Gainesville they found a 105mm shell with three pounds of high explosives in it fifty feet from a resident's back door," Condike says.)

As of press time, however, people in the last two high-priority areas in Texas—the former Camp Bowie, near Brownwood, and the former Camp Fannin, near Tyler—had not been notified of the danger by the Corps of Engineers. Why? According to Condike, the Army doesn't have the money to investigate and resolve the problem, and it doesn't want to disquiet landowners there. "You don't want to tell people exactly where to find this stuff," Condike says, "because there are always a certain number of people who will go out there and intentionally dig it up." What might they find if they did? Unexploded 2.36-inch rockets, M9 anti-tank grenades, and 76mm armor-piercing projectiles.

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