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Bigger cleanup underway at Camp Hale

Cliff Thompson

This summer’s costly cleanup of World War II munitions at a popular section of Camp Hale got a curious boost from a couple of very unlikely sources.

One was the mysterious crash in 1997 of an A-10 attack plane into Gold Dust Peak south of Eagle; the other was a hiker on Whitney Peak three summers ago.

The A-10 tank-killing plane piloted by U.S. Air Force Capt. Craig Button inexplicably broke formation on a training mission over Arizona and flew 500 miles before mysteriously crashing into Gold Dust Peak. Button was killed, but the four 500-pound bombs arming the plane have never been found.

The Camp Hale link developed three summers ago when an Outward Bound instructor hiking at the head of the Homestake drainage on Whitney Peak found what she thought was a part of the crashed A-10. She alerted authorities, who determined the debris was leftover from military training conducted 60 years ago in Camp Hale, which is between Red Cliff and Leadville.

The woman’s discovery – a piece of mortar round – raised a huge red flag that alerted authorities to accelerate their cleanup of Camp Hale.

“She kind of started the whole thing,” said Dave Van Norman, the assistant district ranger at the White River National Forest’s Minturn office.

This week, a 14-person crew armed with metal detectors will be walking shoulder-to-shoulder, sweeping a 400-acre portion of the valley floor to clear unexploded munitions from the East Fork section of Camp Hale. The cleanup could cost $2 million.

“This is going to take decades to clean up,” Van Norman said. “(Camp Hale) was out in the middle of nowhere and wasn’t a priority until recently. That mortar round made it a place that needed to be looked at very quickly.”

As many as 15,000 soldiers from the elite 10th Mountain Division and other units trained for mountain warfare from 1941 to 1949 at Camp Hale. The 250,000-acre site was deeded to the U.S. Forest Service by the Army in 1965 and has become a popular four-season recreation area.

What’s closed?

The East Fork closure starts at the gate on the road and extends to the old rifle range and on to the spot where the road fords the East Fork of the Eagle River. That closure will remain in effect until the area is cleared of potential explosives.

The East Fork campground will be closed weekdays when clearing work is occurring, but it will be open weekends, Van Norman said.

The closure will intermittently affect the Colorado Trail/Continental Divide National Scenic Trail that crosses Camp Hale on its way across the western U.S. When crews are working within a quarter-mile of the trail, hikers will be forced to wait until the sweeps are complete, said Jerry Hodgson, the Army Corps of Engineers project manager at Camp Hale.

One in 10 explosives fired by troops in World War II were duds and Camp Hale is littered with explosives and potentially explosive devices, said Hodgson, who found a smoke grenade lying by the roadside the first day the current sweep was being conducted.

Munitions buried in the earth for more than 60 years have been brought to the surface by successive freeze and thaw cycles, and are being found with increasing frequency by recreationists.

To date, no one has been injured by exploding munitions at Camp Hale, but the situation is still rife with risk. Two summers ago, a trio of anti-tank mines were found by a well-meaning person, who stacked them by the roadside for authorities. Those, fortunately, were not live.

The discovery last fall of five rifle grenades forced the Forest Service to close 3,000 acres of the East Fork area.

And crews working to extinguish a lightning-started blaze last summer discovered munitions nearby, forcing some delicate firefighting that required the aid of weapons experts.

Explosive discoveries

On the first day of sweeping, crews found portions of hand grenades, artillery and mortar shells and other explosive devices. The old explosives are collected, catalogued and recorded for historical purposes.

But it’s slow, methodical work, with crews sweeping about 10 acres a day, authorities said.

“It’s difficult to know if you’re looking at a tin can or unexploded ordnance,” said Candice Walters, spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Washington, D.C.

In the late 80s, Congress ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to clean up the nation’s “FUDS” –or “formerly used defense sites.” Camp Hale is one of more than 9,000 former domestic defense sites, 2,500 of which need hazardous materials and explosives removal, Walters said.

The Army Corps of Engineers has a $220 million annual defense site cleanup budget, she said.

Prior to surveying Camp Hale or starting the cleanup, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment dusted off archives and conducted dozens of interviews with soldiers who had trained at Camp Hale.

Hodgson said there’s evidence that search teams will encounter rifle grenades, mortar shells, 57-millimeter recoilless rifle shells, 105-millimeter howitzer shells, illumination rounds and anti-tank land mines. Research also shows there were 20 different firing ranges in the area that’s now being swept, Hodgson said.

The Army Corps of Engineers and its civilian contractor, Shaw Environmental, have set up a temporary, fenced compound consisting of mobile homes and storage trailers has been created. It is guarded around the clock.

Past, present and future

But it’s not just a cleanup. Camp Hale is on the National Historic Register, meaning any of the work up there has to be done in conjunction with Colorado’s State Historic Office.

“Anything non-ordnance related stays in the field,” Hodgson said.

The position of any live ordnance is recorded with global positioning equipment and photographed. It’s then either destroyed with explosives on-site or stored and destroyed later with other explosives, Hodgson said.

Hodgson estimates it will take as long as 10 years to finish sweeping munitions from Camp Hale.

The cleanup also has a local economic impact. Many of the people helping with the sweep were hired locally, Hodgson said. They are bused to and from the site to Leadville and Avon, he said.

But the surface sweeps won’t find everything. Camp Hale, like most former defense sites, will never be completely weapon-free.

“We don’t want to leave the impression everything is gone,” Hodgson said. “If you see anything that looks like munitions, don’t touch it. Call the Sheriff.”

That number is 328-8500.

Cliff Thompson can be reached at 949-0555 ext 450 or cthompson@vaildaily.com


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