A recently completed ground survey found live explosives deep in the woods on the border between Bibb and Twiggs counties where a World War II-era army training camp once stood.
But residential areas that were once part of the camp’s footprint were not searched, according to Army Corps of Engineers officials.
Chip Whitton, project manager for Formerly Used Defense Sites in the corps’ Savannah district, said the corps does not believe any live ordnance was used in those areas anyway, but contractors were unable to check nearby because the primary owner would not grant the right to enter under the corps’ conditions.
The corps is responsible for cleanups at former defense sites. A $3.2 million investigation of more than 10,000 acres of the former artillery training camp ended July 27, Whitton said. Corps contractor EOD Technology is expected to deliver a full report on the results in about 60 days.
The ground survey was conducted by walking lines through the old camp property using metal detection equipment. Explosives experts checked 3- to 5-foot swaths that totaled about 90 acres, Whitton said. They dug up -- and in a few cases detonated -- what they found.
Residential areas not checked
The neighborhoods of Apple Valley and Wheeler’s Landing, where residents found several practice mortars earlier this year, were not searched.
“Everything we’ve found so far leads us to believe that area was just a practice mortar range, which would’ve had nothing (explosive),” Whitton said. “We didn’t do any transects on that property because it’s already grubbed and graded, so the likelihood we’d find anything would be next to nil. We’re more concerned about areas that are undeveloped.”
The adjacent woods are being developed now by Bonnie Frith and her company, J.D. Construction, but that area hasn’t been checked because the company would not give EOD Technology permission to enter the property, Whitton said. The practice mortars found in the neighborhood came from soil being moved as part of this extension of Wheeler’s Landing.
“That’s definitely an area we’ve been wanting to take a look at and have been actively trying to pursue that right of entry,” Whitton said. “And unfortunately we just have not been able to reach an agreement with Mrs. Frith.”
Frith disputes that claim, saying she has given the corps permission repeatedly in the last 15 years -- including permission in writing as recently as 30 days ago -- to enter the property on foot and check it with their metal detectors. She said her letter granted access for 30 days and asked only for notification of when the search began and finished. But she said the corps won’t conduct the survey unless she agrees that if the corps finds something, it can drive heavy equipment on the land and conduct whatever removal actions it deems necessary -- with no legal liability for any damages. She says she’ll never agree to that.
“I’m not giving anybody carte blanche to go into an established development and do whatever they want and leave!” she said. “They’ve been rude, obnoxious and liars.”
She said she also wanted the corps to agree to call her if any live ordnance was found and allow her to bring in her own experts to test it and “see that it wasn’t a hoax” before it was moved.
“(The area) was never used for anything live,” she said. “They’ve admitted it to me. ... Why would you want to take homeowners who can barely afford their homes and scare them into believing there’s something on their property they should be afraid of? Is this taking advantage because the owners are all black?”
Some residents of the neighborhoods have been concerned about explosion risks in their area, and the corps met with some members of the local homeowners’ association in February to answer questions.
Frith said that while she doesn’t raise the Camp Wheeler issue with home buyers, she has never tried to hide the former uses of the land -- she pointed out that she chose Wheeler’s Landing as the name for the development. She accuses the corps of fear-mongering and causing her to lose home sales.
“I’m tired of them holding meetings with my buyers,” she said, referring to the public meetings held in recent years at the Wilson Convention Center to inform the public of the Camp Wheeler survey process. “They have almost incited my buyers into starting a lawsuit against me!”
Billy Birdwell, communications chief for the corps’ Savannah district, said the corps continues to try to negotiate conditions for searching the land. But checking that property would now require new funding, since the survey is finished, Whitton said.
He said the corps would probably separate out the 200 or so acres around the neighborhoods to examine more closely in the future.
The corps will recommend cleanup of portions of “Range 7,” a 6,700-acre forested section of the former camp where three live 60-millimeter mortars were found, Whitton said. He said additional “anomalies” such as mortar fins, practice rounds and other artillery fragments were also found in the area, which borders Interstate 16 and Sgoda Road as well as a Twiggs County residential neighborhood the corps cleaned up five years ago.
At the time, corps officials said they did not anticipate removing ordnance from forested areas where there was less public access, and some property owners complained that this would keep them from developing or using their land.
The corps was able to acquire funding for these areas after all. Whitton says Camp Wheeler remains the highest priority former defense site in Georgia.
Besides the anomalies in Range 7, grenade fragments were found in a roughly 250-acre portion of Bond Swamp National Wildlife Refuge that will probably also be recommended for cleanup. “That looked like a practice grenade range,” Whitton said.
Earlier this year, Bibb County commissioners expressed concern about risks that boaters, hikers and fishermen might face from unexploded ordnance in Bond Swamp.
The Bond Swamp portion of the survey was less thorough -- with no digging -- because the corps would have needed permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and consultation with the Muscogee Indian Nation, Birdwell said. The nation’s Traditional Cultural Property includes that portion of Bond Swamp.
The corps won’t approach the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about starting this process until after receiving the survey report from EOD Technology, Whitton said.
After the corps reviews the report, it will evaluate the feasibility of different cleanup options, then propose a plan. A public comment period and public hearing will follow, Whitton said. Then the corps will address the comments and finalize a plan.
Any removal action would begin in 2013 at the earliest.
The cost will depend on what the plan eventually includes, but Whitton said the corps is already planning to set aside money for the cleanup as part of its fiscal 2013 budget.
“This is a pretty high priority for us in Savannah, but we’ve got to get the money from headquarters to do it,” Whitton said.
The Twiggs neighborhood cleanup five years ago cost about $5 million, including the cost of relocating some residents during the day. Relocations wouldn’t be necessary in the woods. But many more acres will probably have to be scoured, so the price tag will likely be higher, Whitton said.
There are active kaolin mines near the some of the areas believed to be most contaminated, Whitton said.
Active Minerals plans to mine in one of these “hot spot” areas within two or three years, but it expects the corps cleanup to have taken care of the problem by then, said Richard Southerland, the company’s senior vice president of engineering.
Because of potential unexploded ordnance, Arcilla Mining and Land Co. is already working around one section of its property it is ready to mine, said Ted Smith, the company’s president and CEO.
“We’re not progressing toward those hot zones right now,” he said. “But we’re hoping the corps will step up and clean up what they should have finished years ago.”
He said he understands that the corps is likely to clean up Arcilla’s property next.
Arcilla has hired its own contractor to scan the ground for unexploded ordnance to make sure employees are safe. He noted that kaolin has been mined in the area for about 70 years without causing any explosions.
To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.