Feds combing LBI sand for munitions

February 10, 2009 5:37:09 PM PST
With World War I winding down, Navy ships patrolling the New Jersey coast found themselves with leftover ammunition and no targets for it. So they dumped it overboard, probably thinking the fuses and other ordnance would never be seen or heard from again.

Nearly 90 years later, the fuses resurfaced, invading the shores of two of New Jersey's most popular beaches, Surf City and Ship Bottom.

Now the federal government is in the third - and hopefully final - year of a cleanup that will cost nearly $17 million.

So far, work crews have retrieved 1,213 pieces of munitions, mostly 6 to 8-inch-long fuses filled with gunpowder that could explode if jostled or struck.

"We're not too happy with the fact that this work has to be done," said Pete Shearer, who owns an oceanfront house in Surf City where a huge backhoe was chewing up the beach and sand dunes about 5 feet from his back deck Tuesday morning. "But we're pleased with the fact that the problem is being corrected."

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers unwittingly sucked the munitions from the sea bed and pumped them ashore as part of a massive beach replenishment project begun in late 2006 to keep the towns' beaches nice and wide.

In March 2007, beachgoers started spotting odd-shaped rusty metal items in the sand. Some took them home, and one even scraped rust off one of the items with a butter knife before thinking twice about continuing.

The discoveries spurred jokes among locals and tourists about "getting bombed in Ship Bottom" and even created a cottage industry of T-shirts with slogans like, "I Had a Blast on Long Beach Island," a narrow, 18-mile barrier island about 30 miles north of Atlantic City.

Keith Watson, project manager for the Army Corps, said the government checked thoroughly before starting the $71 million beach replenishment project and had no reason to believe that any munitions were in the area.

In addition to researching military records, the Army Corps searched the area with metal detectors, and took sand samples in the area from which they intended to pump sand, a bed about 2 1/2 miles northeast of Surf City.

Sections of the beaches will remain closed as heavy equipment digs up, scours and sifts the sand in a race against time. Crews hope to finish work by May 22, just days before Memorial Day weekend and the start of the summer beach season.

Work in 2007 and 2008 involved digging down three feet deep, which was the limit of how far diagnostic tools could see. But having retrieved so many munitions, "we knew there was a high probability that more were out there," Watson said.

So this year, 50 pieces of heavy equipment including backhoes, bulldozers, conveyor belts and dump trucks are on the beach. The process involved scooping large bucket loads of sand into sifting machines that will separate any solid objects from the sand.

Munitions that are found are turned over to military demolition crews, who take them to offsite ranges and detonate them.

Because the Army Corps continues to work on beach replenishment projects, it has changed its procedures to include the use of screens at both ends of the dredging equipment used to suck sand from the ocean floor and shoot it onto the beaches. That should prevent anything but sand and water from being pumped ashore, Watson said.

Art Brubaker, a retired Ship Bottom water department worker, says he's not fazed by the presence of munitions on the beaches, where he goes for his daily stroll.

"If they came up through the impellers and propellers of the dredges and a half a mile of pipeline, I guess they're pretty safe," he said.