Sept. 13, 2002 – The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is formulating a plan to inspect Water Island for any vestiges of a chemical weapons testing program that took place there more than 50 years ago.
Authorities that have been conducting surveys of the former Fort Segarra test site for more than a decade presented some of their findings on Thursday to residents on Water Island and St. Thomas. They said making sure Water Island is free of chemical warfare remains is part of a nationwide program of cleaning up old military test sites.
Robert Bridgers, one of the engineers who has been working on the surveys since 1991, said the study is also an aspect of incorporating Water Island into the Virgin Islands territory, a process which formally began in 1996. Bridgers is the Defense Environmental Restoration Program manager for the Army Corps in Jacksonville, Florida.
The study was undertaken by the Army Corps St. Louis Division after researchers discovered the "San Jose Project" was never completed and that all of the weapons brought to the island in 1948 were not accounted for when the project ended two years later.
The San Jose Project was designed to test the storage of chemical munitions under tropical conditions. But engineers on Thursday also described a field test where phosgene gas, a choking agent, was released near a cave with specially constructed doors.
Fort Segarra was constructed on Water Island during World War II, when German submarines were active in the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Barracks and other facilities were set up, but Army officials later changed their mind and abandoned the site.
Rumors of derelict bombs left on island after the Army pulled out were substantiated in 1966 when, Bridgers said, Water Island developers discovered two devices of about 500 and 250 pounds filled with cyanogen chloride. The weapons were subsequently removed by a crew from the Roosevelt Roads Naval Base in Puerto Rico.
Two years ago, in an Ordnance and Explosives Project Management Plan, the Army Corps survey team called for the development of a contingency plan to remove a 500-pound cyanogen bomb from the Flamingo Bay area off Water Island. But after the meeting Thursday on St. Thomas, Bridgers said that was only a scenario required by the Army to lay out all possibilities that a clean-up crew might face.
After a thorough document review, the Army Corps officials said, they believe there may be some derelict bombs on or around the island. But they think either the weapons are empty shells vented several years ago, or their contents have been rendered harmless by changes of composition inside the casings. According to Roger Fitzpatrick, an engineer attached to the Army Corps division in Huntsville, Alabama, "It's impossible or unlikely that an intact munition can be found."
A draft plan for the next step of the Water Island chemical weapons cleanup is now being reviewed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. If it is approved, an investigation of specific sites on the island will be carried out by a private contractor using a specialized crew of former explosive ordnance personnel. Their work will involve digging test pits and trenches and collecting soil samples to test them for chemical traces.
The chemical agents they will be looking for include cyanogen chloride and phosgene. The cleanup is expected to cost $1 million, officials said.
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