The military has left a perilous legacy in Hampton Roads, from bombs embedded in the shores of the Chesapeake Bay to unexploded artillery shells along prime oyster grounds on the James River.
As the military has shut bases, bombing ranges and ordnance depots - and as it prepares to depart Fort Monroe in Hampton - it has left behind a landscape peppered with unexploded munitions that can still claim lives.
And as the region's population has grown with new neighborhoods and business parks, the buffer zones between unexploded bombs and playing children has narrowed.
Boaters, oystermen, students, poachers - and some golfers - are now at risk. In most cases, the military has known of the lingering danger for decades, even generations.
It has done little about it.
Some warning signs have been posted. A few studies were done. More are planned.
Cleanup financing is anemic, and at only two sites in the region have any munitions been dug up - on what's now a college campus/office park in Suffolk and on a golf course at Langley Air Force Base.
Hampton Roads is a microcosm of a national problem that's pervasive, enduring and mostly unaddressed.
"I'm not sure from an argumentative standpoint it is defensible," said Dick Wright, a former head of the Defense Department's Explosives Safety Board, which advises the secretary of defense. "There are a lot of us who are working in the system and are frustrated."
The Army Corps of Engineers - in charge of cleaning up munitions on properties no longer owned by the military - estimates that it faces an $18 billion problem on 2,500 sites across the country. At current financing, it figures that the job will be done in 78 years or so.
Add in ranges that were used and the munitions dumped on active bases nationwide, and the cleanup cost grows to $70 billion - in an effort that wouldn't be finished for 300 years.
That's if no new problems are discovered. Which is quite unlikely.
A 2002 federal Government Accountability Office audit projected that 40 percent of the country's 9,500 former defense sites were deemed by the corps to be no problem without adequate research, studies or even an inspection - and often without asking current property owners whether they found unexploded munitions.
In Hampton Roads, a Daily Press investigation has found, 21 of 152 former defense sites were determined to be no problem with little or no explanation, documentation or research - and often without a property inspection on file at the corps' headquarters in Norfolk.
The corps knows little about a former Navy dive-bombing range in Virginia Beach. It was known as Naval Air Station Creeds when it was used in the 1940s, surrounded by farmland.
A sign from that era that still hangs on the side of a building reads: "Warning. Bio chemicals. Keep out. Gas mask eye protection required."
The site hasn't been a priority because no one has been blown up there.
Several large housing developments are under construction next to the airfield.
"A lot of these areas were farmlands. They were forests. No one thought anyone would ever want to build there. They assumed it would forever be a forest. Well, some are now prime real estate," said Candy Walters, a corps spokeswoman in Washington, D.C. "A lot of times, the records aren't that good, and dirt is moved, and something pops up that you didn't expect.
"This contamination didn't happen overnight, and it won't get cleaned up overnight."
Civilian deaths on these old ranges over the decades have been relatively few - 84 recorded nationwide - but the military's munitions experts consider that figure to be mostly a matter of dumb luck.
In April, a Boy Scout digging on an unidentified abandoned bombing range uncovered 127 glass vials of deadly chemical-warfare agents in old detection kits.
A few feet away were three live napalm bombs.
THE REGION'S PROBLEMS
Here are some of the undeniably dangerous large-scale munitions problems in Hampton Roads:
Thousands of bombs lurking on Plum Tree Island near Poquoson in the Chesapeake Bay. Bonfires and beer cans show that trespassing isn't unusual. Three teenagers were blown up there in 1958. They survived only because they tripped a practice bomb, not one of the 2,000-pound behemoths visible in the surf.
Hundreds of artillery shells embedded in the muck of an uninhabited section of Fort Eustis known as Mulberry Island. It's on the James River, next to some of the best oyster grounds in Virginia. A 2002 Army report rated the area "a serious risk - priority for further action." Some small warning signs have been posted, but the danger remains unmarked on maps or nautical charts. Poachers have built duck blinds and deer stands on the island.
A hazard under the fairways at a Langley Air Force Base golf course that's far worse than the one bomb unearthed last summer. A never-before-revealed metal-detector survey found 17,000 buried metallic anomalies that might be munitions. The area was a bombing range, then a landfill that was covered with dirt to make a golf course. So far, 140 bombs have been dug up.
As many as 23,000 munitions scattered throughout Fort Monroe in Hampton, and 80,000 or so more in the moat, including Civil War-era cannonballs. The Army will leave the one-time artillery-training base in four years but will remain responsible for a difficult, expensive and long cleanup. Part of the post was also used for mortar practice at one point. Artillery shells have been found washed up on the post's beach.
Dozens of artillery shells carted from - or blown up on - the popular Buckroe Beach in Hampton in recent years. They apparently were sucked up from offshore in the Chesapeake Bay during a sand-replenishment effort. More unexploded shells might be just offshore, waiting to be washed up by the next hurricane.
For more than a century, the bay was used for target practice from Fort Monroe and Fort Wool, an abandoned man-made island next to the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel that also contains unexploded artillery shells.
A few other locations in the region are suspected to contain unexploded munitions but aren't confirmed to be hazards.
A munitions dump might be on the bank of the York River, created in the 1930s on what's now Yorktown Naval Weapons Station. The Navy has known of the dump's possible presence since a 1992 report but has made no attempt to confirm it, much less clean it up. The Navy instead has focused on a myriad of serious pollution problems at the base.
A 2004 Army report says there's a "strong probability" that unexploded artillery shells are under the parade ground at Fort Eustis in Newport News, from when that section of the post was an artillery battery during World War I.
It wasn't unusual for duds or shells unused during training to be covered with dirt and forgotten. In fact, two unexploded shells were found near a former artillery battery on Fort Monroe in 1998 - 54 years after the battery was last used. The shells were live.
"Black powder is something that doesn't go away," said Air Force Tech Sgt. Douglas McDowell, a 14-year bomb squad veteran. "It gets wet, it dries out and it's good to go. These things are dangerous."
The Army report rates the Fort Eustis parade ground as a potentially "severe" problem because the land is now used for civilian-attended ceremonies and sports. It's also next to a playground and the post's day care center.
Base officials discounted the report, saying they think that housing units were nearby at the time, making it implausible for loud artillery batteries to have been positioned there.
Despite the site's proximity to children, the Army has never used metal detectors to see whether there might be unexplainable metallic objects beneath the surface.
Munitions cleanup is under way at only one of the unquestionably dangerous former bases in the region.
Several tons of old TNT - brown and crystallized - was found in 1987 at the former Nansemond Ordnance Depot on the James and Nansemond rivers in Suffolk. The property now is a Tidewater Community College branch campus and an office park.
It took nine years to clean up that problem, but more have been found. Dozens of unexploded munitions have been dug up next to General Electric offices built near the entrance to the former base. That job isn't completed yet. The project isn't fenced. College students routinely jog by on a road 30 yards away.
A new munitions problem pops up every few years at the former depot.
The latest: Military fuses and leaking old TNT found last summer on the shoreline, several hundred yards from classrooms. The area was fenced off. Removal work might begin this summer.
Only half the former depot's 975 acres have been fully investigated. Still to be looked at in depth is an ammunition storage area. The graffiti in the warehouses there is fresh.
There also are indications that chemical weapons were stored at the depot and that some might have been buried there after World War II.
Five large containers of a suspected chemical-warfare agent were found in 1993 on the banks of the James, on former depot property a few hundred yards from the Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel.
Preliminary tests indicated that the agent was cyanogen chloride. It attacks the human body at the cellular level and causes convulsions, unconsciousness and death within eight minutes if inhaled. It can penetrate gas masks.
But the tests were inconclusive, and a definitive determination was never made.
The Corps of Engineers maintains that there's no proof chemical weapons were ever stored or buried at the former depot.
But a surviving record of Army chemical-weapon dumping in the ocean indicates that a shipment was taken from the former depot in the 1940s and thrown overboard somewhere in the Atlantic.
Another record shows that a shipment of captured German chemical munitions was brought to the former depot in 1945 on the SS Nathan Hale - one of a dozen such shipments to the United States after the war. The weapons often leaked, so the shipments were halted in 1946.
A third record - a 1945 requisition from the War Department, now the Defense Department - ordered 20 chemical weapons from the Nathan Hale sent to the Aberdeen Proving Ground, up the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. That was the Army's main East Coast chemical-weapon storage and testing base at the time.
The Army has no record of that shipment arriving.
Two German artillery shells were found next to the suspected cyanogen chloride by the bridge, as were several containers that resemble those used to transport liquid mustard gas.
DEEDS OF THE PAST
Money and time work against quick removal of discovered munitions.
The regional Corps of Engineers office gets only $5 million a year to deal with unexploded munitions, pollution and structural hazards at former defense sites in Hampton Roads.
The former Nansemond depot has received the bulk of that money - $30 million of the $50 million appropriated over the past decade.
In the cold world of risk assessment, the corps decided that TNT and munitions found near the community college outweigh the dangers from bombs and artillery shells on islands that attract trespassers.
"All of us are concerned all the time," said Roger Young, a manager with the corps' munitions response program in Huntsville, Ala. "We wonder what we can do today to keep kids safe. All of us are concerned - and not primarily about costs."
The military can argue that it didn't know until the 1980s about the dangers from base pollutants or from dumping chemical weapons in the ocean, as was done routinely. But there's no doubt that the dangers posed by ranges were fully known at the time they were abandoned.
Regardless, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the military ditched many of these properties on states or municipalities for development or conversion to public parks, or turned them over to the National Park Service for use as remote wildlife refuges.
They often were given away or sold for as little as $1.
Those sites seldom become a priority until a hiker stumbles across an unexploded bomb or nature's endless cycle of frost and thaw churns a long-buried explosive to the surface of a housing development, playground or office park.
The federal government then lumbers into action, doing required studies before initiating a cleanup that routinely takes years.
The military can no longer just walk away from ranges that it bombed or land it polluted and no longer wants.
In the 1980s, Congress passed base-closing regulations that require the Defense Department to clean up property before abandoning it.
But the ranges shed by the military before then remain all but ignored, despite the obvious large-scale dangers that they pose.
More than 2,500 former and current ranges are spread across the country. They're in every state.
"The pressure is not there to do something because there aren't enough dead bodies," said Lenny Siegel, who has tracked munitions issues for years for the advocacy group Center for Public Environment Oversight.
"There's not enough blood. Surprisingly, we have had very few incidents, but people go there and take this stuff home, and then it becomes a time bomb."
Only 84 civilians since the 1940s have been hurt from munitions that exploded on former defense sites or were taken from ranges. Almost half those people died. Most of the victims were children. That's according to a 2005 study done for the corps by defense contractor QuantiTech.
"In many cases, people have known about it, but no one has been hurt, and no one has said, 'Come get me,' " said Wright, the former head of the Defense Explosives Safety Board.
"There are thousands and thousands of acres, and the military said to itself, 'I can't just go dig it up. I don't know where it all is, and I could die.' "
Only in the past few years has Congress appropriated money for the military to study and rank the known munitions problems, a task that was finished two years ago.
The most dangerous ranges were made a priority to be tackled first. But unexpected munitions discoveries have cropped up, and demands from politicians for immediate action on their hometown problems has forced some lesser dangers to the top of the list, Wright said.
"We need more oversight. We need more transparency from the Defense Department, ... and we need the money," said Rochelle Dornatt, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif. Farr has pushed stridently for the cleanup of former ranges.
"Congress has not exactly been responsive. The money will come when Congress realizes that this is an issue in every single congressional district in the country.
"I think you see some progress now. I don't think you see a lot of progress."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times