Environmental Remediation: USACE Expertise in High Demand

Most mainlanders under a certain age have forgotten where the first enemy aerial attack on the continental United States occurred – but the experts cleaning up the site, in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) Alaska District, can’t help but remember.

On Unalaska Island, more than 1,110 miles from Anchorage, Fort Learnard was built during World War II on a promontory overlooking the only deepwater port in the Aleutian Island chain. Fort Learnard was equipped with anti-aircraft and anti-ship guns to protect Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base, which was bombed by Japanese aircraft on June 3 and 4, 1942.

When the fort was decommissioned after the war, departing Soldiers exploded unused munitions and buried tanks of unused diesel fuel. USACE’s environmental cleanup experts, and the contractors with whom they’ve partnered to return the site to pristine condition, have been working to restore Fort Learnard and other Unalaska Island sites for decades.

Nearly 70 years after the war, in the summer of 2023, the cleanup of Fort Learnard began with field crews locating and removing fragments of artillery shells and other ordnance. Plans call for this investigation work to continue in 2024.

advertisement

Meanwhile, at Fort Mears in the nearby Unalaska Valley, additional teams removed and tested soil from areas close to where storage tanks were extracted during the 1990s and 2000s. When the soil samples were determined to be clean, each location was backfilled and restored. A component of the Amaknak Formerly Used Defense Site, this abandoned Army outpost hosts building sites from the World War II era. To the greater American public, the highest-profile environmental restoration projects performed by USACE are often the ambitious, large-scale ecosystem restorations executed by the agency’s Civil Works Program, in areas as diverse as the Florida Everglades, Chesapeake Bay, and the Louisiana coast. But the expertise necessary to clean up and restore sites that were hurriedly stood up in a time of war – and often hurriedly decommissioned afterward – emerged within USACE’s military programs.

Every one of the more than 38,000 citizens and Soldiers who serve USACE, and everyone who partners or contracts with the agency, plays a role in supporting its environmental mission. More than 10% of the USACE workforce specializes in an environmental discipline, and these experts help to provide sustainable solutions for the planet and communities across the globe.

After removing a storage tank during environmental cleanup activities, a field crew collects soil samples in the summer of 2023 at the Amaknak Formerly Used Defense Site in Unalaska Valley, Alaska. Once the team confirmed that the soil tested within compliance standards, the area was backfilled and restored. USACE PHOTO BY RENA FLINT

For decades now, USACE professionals have internalized the knowledge that every project and business line has an impact on the environment, the economy, and the health and well-being of the communities it serves. Since 2002, that knowledge has been codified in a set of Environmental Operating Principles that have guided USACE’s sustainable use, stewardship, and restoration of the nation’s natural resources. These principles are not just words; they have altered the very structure of the agency, guiding the assembly of Communities of Practice around specific issues. They apply to the human environment, as well, and to all aspects of USACE’s business and operations, across Military Programs, Civil Works, and Research and Development. They require recognition and acceptance on the part of everyone in USACE, from its newest team members to senior leaders.

A key USACE leader is Lara Beasley, the Environmental Division chief, who oversees the execution of more than $2 billion worth of environmental compliance and cleanup work annually. The experts within the Environmental Division manage, design, and carry out a full range of cleanup, munitions response, and protection activities at sites around the country and abroad, through
two turnkey programs: the Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) program, which includes the Fort Learnard cleanup effort, and the Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP).

advertisement

As a guest on USACE’s Inside the Castle podcast on Aug. 31, 2023, Beasley, who also leads USACE’s Environmental Community of Practice consisting of more than 4,000 environmental professionals, explained that demand for USACE’s environmental expertise is growing rapidly. In FY 2022, the program was funded at more than $2 billion – a substantial increase from just a few years earlier. “Our workload is getting bigger and bigger,” said Beasley, “and it’s not just inflation. We are the primary provider of really tough solutions to environmental challenges for the federal government. And that’s why we’ve grown so much from 2018 to this year.”

Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS)

On behalf of the Army, USACE has been responsible for cleaning up former Department of Defense (DOD) installations since 1986, with the primary goal of reducing risks to human health and the environment from contamination that can include hazardous, toxic, or radioactive waste, and may also include military munitions. Since the program’s establishment, USACE experts have evaluated more than 10,000 former DOD properties; determined that 7,000 were eligible for the program; and identified concerns requiring cleanup at more than 5,400 of those sites.

According to Chris Evans, DOD Environmental Programs Branch Chief – another guest on the Aug. 31 Inside the Castle podcast – such a huge number of projects requires a diversified approach. “These sites are all very unique,” he said. “They can range from just a few acres to thousands of acres. The total inventory across the country totals millions of acres. We’re in every U.S. state and territory. The properties being used today can vary a lot. They can be part of federal or state managed parks, or wildlife refuges, agricultural lands, or tribal lands. They could be commercial or industrial properties and even private residences.”

FUDS is a major piece of a larger defense program that, when created, assigned USACE responsibility for the cleanup of materials that would include unexploded ordnance. Up to that point,
DOD had never promulgated an order specifically directing USACE to undertake munitions work, but in 2001, the department established a separate program element, the Military Munitions Response Program (MMRP), to provide specific guidance for USACE. Munitions response is now one of the major activities of the FUDS program.

A contractor performing work for the United States Army Corps of Engineers under FUSRAP uses a GPS device to mark verification sample locations in a remediated strip of Pershall Road in Hazelwood, Missouri to verify remediation was completed successfully. The FUSRAP team’s ability to initiate remediation activities on Pershall Road was enabled by an ongoing partnership with the Missouri Department of Transportation, which notifies the team of roadwork that makes previously inaccessible soils available for sampling, testing and remediation. USACE PHOTO BY JOHN PAUL REBELLO

In the Caribbean Sea, about halfway between the main island of Puerto Rico and the British Virgin Islands, Culebra Island anchors an archipelago renowned for its white sand beaches. The U.S.
military began using the islands in 1901, and during World War II made them into a gunnery and bombing practice site for the Navy. Part of the current FUDS inventory, Culebra Island is being studied and restored by munitions experts within USACE’s Jacksonville District.

“We are the recognized leader in performing the investigation and cleanup of military munitions,” said Evans, “which include unexploded ordnance, discarded military munitions, and even chemical warfare material.” To do that work, USACE brings together experts in multiple disciplines. About 60 ordnance and explosive safety specialists work directly for USACE, all former service members with specialized training and experience. “Their primary job at our sites,” Evans said, “is to ensure the actions we’re taking and the decisions we’re making when investigating and removing military munitions from these sites is being done safely – not just for our workers and our contractors, but also for the all the people who work or play in these affected communities.”

advertisement

Geophysicists are another essential group of professionals involved in munitions work, Evans said. One of the biggest challenges of the FUDS program is that much of the unexploded ordnance is buried underground. “Our geophysicists ensure that we have the best available technology at the site to detect and identify those items in the subsurface,” said Evans. These professionals are aided by technological advances, including advanced sensors that can reliably distinguish between a buried bomb or shell and a non-hazardous metallic object such as a horseshoe or barbed wire.

The FUDS program’s greatest successes go beyond the considerable expertise. and innovative technological solutions it has brought to difficult environmental problems: USACE leaders such as Beasley and Evans also work diligently to break down bureaucratic and cultural barriers that may stand in the way of everyone’s common goal: getting land cleaned up and restored to a state that is safe and usable for stakeholders and communities.

The FUDS program is about 70% complete today, which means about 1,600 sites remain to be cleaned up and restored. This work, like the work performed for FUSRAP, is done meticulously and deliberately under a process whose terms are dictated by the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).

“Most of the work that we’re focusing on today is to clean up military munitions,” Evans said, “and to address the longer-term challenges we face with contaminated groundwater.”

Formerly Utilized Sites Remedial Action Program (FUSRAP)

FUSRAP was established in 1974 to identify, investigate and, if necessary, clean up or control radiological contamination resulting from work performed as part of the nation’s early atomic energy program, at former Manhattan Project and Atomic Energy Commission sites. Each of these agencies was a predecessor to today’s Department of Energy (DOE), whose Office of Legacy Management has been working with USACE on the program for more than two decades.

In 1997, USACE assumed cleanup responsibility for FUSRAP, and since then, 10 sites have been closed out and transferred to DOE for long-term stewardship. Today, remedial action is either planned, underway, or closing out at 21 active sites. These sites do not pose an immediate threat to human health or the environment.

Contractors performing work for the United States Army Corps of Engineers under FUSRAP classify samples acquired from excavation on Pershall Road in Hazelwood, Missouri using state-of-the-art radiation detection instruments as part of a survey to verify that remediation at the site was successfully completed. USACE PHOTO BY JOHN PAUL REBELLO

One project currently underway is the St. Louis Airport Site Vicinity Properties (SLAPS VPs). From 1942 to 1973, uranium processing for the government’s early atomic weapons program was conducted at facilities about 15 miles from downtown St. Louis, just north of the St. Louis Lambert International Airport. From 1997 to 2006, USACE removed 600,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil and material from the site, as well as from a site in north St. Louis County.

Today’s more stringent cleanup standards require a second look at these sites, and the FUSRAP team’s revisitation is underway now with sampling activities being conducted on soil at SLAPS and the north St. Louis County site. One common sampling method is the “gamma walkover,” in which gamma ray sensors, coupled with GPS data, record detectable radiation levels and locations.

The FUSRAP program, like FUDS, benefits from technological breakthroughs. In USACE’s Buffalo District, which contains some of the earliest Manhattan Project sites, the FUSRAP team has developed a three-dimensional imaging tool that will help them visualize patterns of gamma reading intensity over a survey area.

Many of the Buffalo District’s investigations had been completed by the time it stood up its FUSRAP program in 1997 – but a few remain. As of the summer of 2023, investigation and remediation continue at a site in Luckey, Ohio, which was initially used for magnesium processing, and where the Atomic Energy Commission stood up a beryllium production facility in 1949. The team has so far safely excavated more than 150,00 cubic yards of contaminated soil.

In an overview of the program for the Inside the Castle podcast, Environmental Support Branch Chief John Busse pointed out that USACE’s work isn’t limited to former atomic weapons laboratories or production facilities. “One of the programs we’re responsible for is the U.S. Army Deactivated Nuclear Power Plant Program,” he said. The Army operated three mobile nuclear reactors – one of which was aboard a surface ship – from 1956 to 1976, to evaluate the feasibility of meeting the military’s power needs on land. The reactors were deactivated in the 1970s and placed in storage while awaiting further decommissioning, and for much of that time have been monitored, safeguarded, and maintained by USACE experts.

Decommissioning efforts at these plants are now nearly complete. The MH-1A Sturgis barge, the world’s first floating nuclear power plant, was decommissioned in 2019. Decommissioning activities on the remaining two reactors, SM-1 at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and SM-1A at Fort Greely, Alaska, are ongoing.

Like the FUDS program, work on the FUSRAP and Army Deactivated Nuclear Power Plant Program requires highly technical occupational skills and specialties. “We have a significant cadre of experience across the Corps of Engineers,” said Busse. “Nearly half these people are board-certified health physicists, and we’re in the process of hiring more.”

advertisement

The Buffalo District, because of its early start, employs the most health physicists in the Corps of Engineers, but much of the reactor decommissioning work has been overseen or performed by USACE’s Baltimore District, whose health physicists provide radiation safety and technical support through the North Atlantic Division’s Radiological Health Physics Regional Center of Expertise. “We also have a Radiation Safety Program Office,” Busse said, “that oversees our labs in districts that perform instrumentation of radioactive sources that require a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

A Provider of Choice

A host of other specialists – toxicologists, environmental engineers, chemists, biologists, archaeologists, geologists, cartographers, geographers, hydrologists, and more – apply critical skills and insights to the work of FUDS and FUSRAP. But because this combination of skills and experience is so unique and accomplished, it has been applied to other customers, in other situations, beyond these flagship programs. The services of USACE’s military munitions cleanup experts, for example, are in high demand at active Army, Air Force, and National Guard installations.

USACE environmental experts also provide cleanup and response capabilities in support of the DOD’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) program, and of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Superfund program.

“More than 75% of our work is the environmental cleanup of hazardous toxic or radioactive waste,” said Beasley. “Twenty-five percent is what we call environmental quality work, under the National Environmental Policy Act – studies, cultural resources, historical preservation.” USACE provides a variety of environmental services and technical products for DOD and non-DOD federal agencies, such as the EPA and the departments of Agriculture and Interior.

Contractors performing work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers under FUSRAP analyze soil samples from various locations and depths from Coldwater Creek in Florissant, Missouri, using sensitive radiation detectors like the 44-9 Alpha, Beta, and Gamma Detector and the 44-10 Gamma Detector to determine potential contamination Aug. 15, 2023. USACE PHOTO

Because public health and safety are the top priorities of USACE’s environmental programs, Beasley emphasized the importance of public involvement and coordination at every FUDS and FUSRAP  project site. Public input is ensured by CERCLA, but USACE reaches beyond mere legal requirements, working closely with property owners and community members to choose the best alternative for a response action.

“Our teams work very, very hard, particularly where we are actively cleaning up a site, to engage our communities in our decision-making process,” Beasley said, “and to answer their questions – What has happened on these sites? What are we doing about it? – and get their input on those decisions that we’re making. Because in many cases, they’re going to be able to tell us: What this site is going to be used for in the future, how we can best enable those activities, how we can clean this up in a timely manner, and where we want to start. Those are  all really important parts of every single cleanup project, especially under our flagship programs.”

This article originally featured in the 2023-2024 edition of America’s Engineers: The People, Programs, and Projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

’23-’24 DIGITAL EDITION SPONSOR

Subscribe to the America's Engineers newsletter and never miss out on any of the recent stories about the incredible people, programs, and projects of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

You have successfully subscribed to the newsletter

There was an error while trying to send your request. Please try again.

America's Engineers will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.