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Mustard gas not found at airport

A six-week, $1.2-million project at Hernando County Airport unearthed an old car grille, but no evidence of chemical weapons from World War II.

By DAN DeWITT
Published September 19, 2003

photo
[Times photo: Maurice Rivenbark]
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hired a team of engineers to search for 127 mustard gas canisters that federal officials thought were buried at the Hernando County Airport.

BROOKSVILLE - Six weeks ago, the federal government made the Hernando County Airport sound like a pretty dangerous place.

During World War II, mustard gas bombs were routinely loaded on airplanes there for practice bombing runs. At the end of the war, 127 canisters of the chemical weapon were dumped in a pit and set on fire.

All this led the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to label the airport a "Code One" former military site - meaning it had the highest potential for hazard - and to spend $1.2-million to look for mustard gas there.

Now, with the search coming to an end, "we have not found anything we thought might be there, nothing related to chemical warfare," said Robert Bridgers, regional manager of a program to clean up former defense sites.

"We have recovered a lot of scrap wire, various pieces of metal debris and the grille off an old car."

He said workers will leave the site by the end of the week, if the state Department of Environmental Protection gives its approval.

Earlier studies used high-powered metal detectors to identify several hundred items buried at the airport, formerly called the Brooksville Army Airfield. At the beginning of the project, the engineering firm hired by the corps had planned to dig up 190 of those items.

It has not, because of frequent rainstorms and the hot days that required workers wearing heavy protective suits to take frequent breaks.

"Heat fatigue was a significant factor," Bridgers said.

Workers have unearthed about 120 of the suspect items, enough to be reasonably sure the site is free of chemical weapons.

"We think we have a sufficiently representative sample," Bridgers said. "Because we haven't found anything, we don't expect to find anything."

During a media tour in early August, shortly before the project began, Bridgers demonstrated why the work was expensive and time-consuming.

The dig site was covered with a portable 16- by 32-foot aluminum hut designed to contain chemicals. People entering the site were required to put on protective suits in a tent and to leave the suits at the end of each shift.

Next to this tent stood a bright orange one, where any workers exposed to chemicals would be decontaminated before being transported to a hospital.

Hernando was singled out not only because of its history but because it and the surrounding area are ripe for development, Bridgers said at the time.

Now he says this search should put to rest fears that any of these chemicals remain in the ground. Bridgers said he has already requested a state inspection that would allow the engineering firm to clear the site.

"We're trying to get somebody to talk to, to get the state's concurrence that we've completed the project," he said.

Though the employee normally responsible for such inspections is unavailable, said DEP spokesman Mike Zavosky, the agency is trying to schedule a visit to the site.

"That's something we're actively working on," he said.

In the final analysis, Hernando County residents were never in acute danger, Bridgers said.

Mustard gas is an irritant designed to incapacitate, not kill, enemy soldiers. And despite the name, it is an oily substance that needs an explosive charge to become airborne.

Now, with the search nearly complete, he said, the danger seems even slimmer.

"That's the good news," Bridgers said. "The bad news is it cost a lot of money, and the taxpayers had to foot the bill."

- Dan DeWitt can be reached at 352754-6116 or at dewitt@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 19, 2003, 01:48:06]


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