At one point during World War II, 40 percent of the U.S. Navy’s weapons and ammunition came from central Nebraska. NET News recently reported on a former military arsenal in Colorado that was converted into an urban wildlife refuge. As part of our QUEST Nebraska science project, NET News looks at how a similarly contaminated site in Nebraska is being reused.
Inside an old military bunker east of Hastings, Neb., Ronnie Sanchez reads from a sign painted on the wall.
“In this one bunker, they had 143,000 pounds of missile, 500,000 pounds of smokeless powder, and another 500,000 pounds of pyrotechnics. If you multiply that by all of them, you think about how much stuff they were storing in all these bunkers out here,” Sanchez said.
We’re at the former site of the Hastings Naval Ammunition Depot, where millions of pounds of explosives and bombs were assembled and stored from World War II into the early 1960s. Row after row of the concrete structures—many covered with sod—still cover the landscape. But Sanchez isn’t a military officer. He’s the project leader for the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District, which manages about 24,000 acres across south-central Nebraska for migrating birds.
“There was once over 200,000 acres of wetlands that occurred in Rainwater Basin region. 90 percent of those are now gone,” Sanchez said. “Even of the 10 percent remaining, most are highly altered.”
Ronnie Sanchez is the project leader for the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District, which manages about 24,000 acres across south-central Nebraska for migrating birds.
(Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
Like this wetland, the McMurtry Waterfowl Production Area, a 1000-acre fragment of the 48,000-acre former depot site. It’s the only WPA not open to the public, and the only listed as a contaminated Superfund site, meaning it requires serious environmental cleanup.
“In Hastings, the state was just sampling the drinking water and discovered contamination and that effort mushroomed,” said Bill Gresham, the remedial project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency region that includes Nebraska. The city of Hastings lies west of the depot. In 1983 it had to close a municipal water well after finding contaminants harmful to human health. Most of the contaminated groundwater—called the plume—is concentrated east of town, around the former depot site.
“The contaminants in the plume are explosives and volatile organic compounds, related to the ammunition depot there,” Gresham said.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been working on the site for a couple of decades. After cleaning the contaminated soil, it began the process of cleaning up the groundwater, which Gresham said is “difficult, challenging, expensive and takes a long time.”
Kirk Boese is the assistant project manager. He said this year they finished building a groundwater treatment plant to clean the water.
“They pour the water in the top of the tower and it cascades over a lot of little things inside that disturb the water and some of these chemicals don’t like that, end up turning to gas and they leave the water. So when water comes out those contaminants have been removed,” Boese said.
They’ve already installed a few wells to pump up groundwater out and run it through the treatment plant. All of the wells should be finished by next summer. Once the water’s clean, Boese said it will be used by the USDA’s Meat Animal Research Center, which occupies nearly three-quarters of the former naval depot site.
“We call that beneficial reuse. Instead of wasting all that water, USDA gets to use it for watering plants, or crops, or watering the animals,” Boese said, adding that it’s especially important because the groundwater cleanup will continue for at least the next 30 years.
The EPA’s Gresham agreed. “Reuse of land and in the case of treated groundwater, water itself, is a goal we all strive for.”
In addition to the Meat Animal Research Center, the former depot site is used by the Nebraska National Guard, Central Community College, and private landowners.
Sanchez said they’ve had no issues with wildlife contamination since the McMurtry WPA property came into the national wildlife refuge system in 1963. They even pump untreated groundwater up to help fill the wetlands in dry years.
“There’s nothing natural about us where we’re at here in in this landscape. I mean you look around, it’s all highly altered,” Sanchez said, looking out at the wetland at McMurtry WPA.
“I can see a cattle feedlot from here. There’s trees where there shouldn’t be, there’s roads, there’s crop production, there’s power lines,” Sanchez said.
And yet, this altered landscape is still valuable habitat —home not only to migrating birds, but also whitetail deer, burrowing owls, prairie dogs and more.
“There’s nothing natural about it, but the fact that these birds choose to come back to this area every single year, that tells us something. They’re telling us they want to be here for their own reasons and it’s upon us to make sure that we manage that carefully,” Sanchez said.
Some of the Superfund sites in Nebraska that are being reused include:
- Nebraska Ordnance Plant (Former): Mead
- Lindsay Manufacturing Co.: Lindsay
- Garvey Elevator: Adams County.
See the complete list. (Source:EPA Region 7)
There are more than a dozen Superfund sites in Nebraska, contaminated by military use, agricultural pesticides, even dry cleaning chemicals. They’ve all been evaluated through the same process, and, while cleanup approaches vary, each one is monitored until the site no longer poses a threat. And others are also being reused: Most of the former Nebraska Ordnance Plant near Mead now belongs to the University of Nebraska, which runs an agricultural research center and uses treated ground water for irrigation and livestock.
Still, new contamination continues to be found: Last week the EPA proposed adding two sites in York to the Superfund list for hazardous groundwater contamination ongoing since 1990.
This story is part of our QUEST Nebraska science reporting project. QUEST is a collaboration of six public broadcasters across the country, including NET News. Funding for QUEST is provided by the National Science Foundation. For more stories on the science of sustainability, visit the QUEST Nebraska website.