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Aging chemical agent lying buried in Florida soil

Mustard gas bombs and stocks buried shortly after WWII remain, some in the bay area.

By CHUCK MURPHY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 15, 2003

If United Nations inspectors want to find chemical weapons, they can take a walk in the Withlacoochee State Forest -- and bring a shovel.

The forest in eastern Hernando County is one of several Florida sites where long-lost chemical munitions still linger.

The mustard gas in them may have long since drained away or become inert, but some shells -- whether under the soil in the Withlacoochee, in a remote part of the Hernando County Airport or on the south end of MacDill Air Force Base -- may still contain traces of the blister-causing chemical agent.

On Friday, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., renewed his call for declassification and further inspection of the sites throughout Florida.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with making sure the former chemical weapons are safe, had already planned to make return visits to Hernando and other chemical sites around the state later this year.

The chemical bombs got here when they were dropped from airplanes or fired from artillery during testing by the Army in the 1940s and '50s, back when the United States feared chemical attack from Germany or the Soviet Union, not Iraq.

But knowing they exist is one thing. Finding them is another.

"The sites have been on our radar screen for some time," said Robert Bridgers, program manager of the Defense Environment Restoration Program for the Corps of Engineers. "It's been a question of getting the necessary funding."

In January, a team from the corps visited the Withlacoochee and the Hernando County Airport. It was the latest step in an assessment and removal program that began in the early 1990s and gained steam after the federal government declassified documents related to the chemical weapons programs.

Within the next few months, the corps expects to begin a public awareness campaign for campers and visitors to the forest. The work at the airport may be more substantial, Bridgers said.

Actual excavation or testing might be needed there because some uncertainty remains about just how much chemical agent might be buried there. And, with the possibility of expansion of the Airport Industrial Park at the former Brooksville Army Air Field, the corps figures it makes sense to do some further checking.

The best estimate is that 127 mustard gas-filled bombs were buried on that property in the 1940s. But some of the people who worked at the old air field also recall burying some drums, and maybe a larger, leaky mustard gas bomb. No one's sure where those might be, but interim airport director Don Silvernell said he hopes they are found.

"I'd like to see them come back in here and resolve it one way or another," he said. "But I think it will probably be within a year, not within months."

Tom Freeman of the Corps of Engineers did archives searches the corps is relying on in the search for the bombs. There is also a chance some chemical agents exist in the Chassahowitzka Swamp on Hernando's west side, he said, but it's no sure thing.

Documents show the Army sought and received permission to make flights there and planned some, but the records stop there, Freeman said.

Other local sites thought to have been contaminated with mustard gas include Tampa International Airport, where 55-gallon drums were unearthed in 1950 and two tested positive for mustard gas. And some records indicate a 500-pound mustard gas bomb was buried at MacDill in 1952 or 1953, though a search in the early 1990s failed to find it.

The corps doubts that any chemicals are left at TIA, formerly called Drew Field, though officials intend to review records to make sure. MacDill will not be investigated since it is an active military base.

In a briefing on Thursday, officials from the corps and the Department of Defense said they are checking other state chemical and biological test sites, including former Army facilities in Yeehaw Junction, Avon Park, Key West, Panama City and Boca Raton.

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