“Outer Banks Strange”: Are unexploded bombs a threat to environmental safety?

By: - April 12, 2022 12:00 pm
Chemicals from old U.S. military munitions may be polluting the environment in the section of North Carolina’s Outer Banks outlined in this map. Graphic by Layna Hong

SOUTHERN SHORES, NC – Standing before the town council in early March, Southern Shores Town Manager Cliff Ogburn began yet another presentation on the bombs potentially buried around town.

It was strange, but it was “Outer Banks Strange.” Strange like side-of-the-highway historical markers recounting German submarines sinking U.S. ships off the coast. Strange like commercial fisherman trawling for scallops and netting a live torpedo instead. Strange like locals using sand-filled practice bombs as doorstops.

When you live on a 200-mile stretch of barrier islands that was sparsely populated during World War II – and therefore perfect for military target practice – a lot of things are strange, and a lot of strange things wash up, get buried, get discovered.

The bombs Ogburn referred to at the meeting were left over from the Southern Shores Training Site, 3,000-acre area of land and sea used as a bombing, strafing and rocket target range by the Navy from the early 1940s to 1945.

Today, the site is home to the tourism-fueled town of Southern Shores, where the year-round population of just over 3,000 people balloons to 10,000 during the summer. Near the heart of the former training site – a 50-acre plot once called Target #29 – is a popular residential neighborhood named Chicahauk.

It was 1993 when someone last reported finding “munitions or explosives of concern” in Southern Shores to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the government agency responsible for managing the site.

But Ogburn wasn’t at the meeting to talk about explosives. He was there to talk about environmental contamination.

The surface water at the Southern Shores site is contaminated by antimony, copper, lead and zinc as well as 2-nitrotoluene and 3-nitrotoluene, solvents used in bomb making, according to a 2017 ProPublica investigation that examined data from the Department of Defense.

A remedial investigation is not scheduled until 2040, but experts say another study is needed sooner to determine whether the contaminants are a threat to human or ecological health.

Two branches and a swamp

The former Southern Shores Training Area is part of the Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) Program, which cleans up environmental contamination at properties formerly owned, leased, possessed or used by the military. The Army is the Department of Defense executive agent for FUDS, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for carrying out the program.

In 2006, the Corps contracted with Parsons, an infrastructure engineering firm, to study Target #29 and the surrounding area. Researchers took 10 soil samples, two surface water samples and one groundwater sample. The surface water samples were taken from Cypress Pond, a cypress swamp located in a nature preserve in Chicahauk. Results indicated that the surface water was contaminated and further study was recommended.

“The Human Health Risk Assessment concluded that human health risks due to mercury and 2-nitrotoluene in the soil and surface water, respectively, are possible,” the study reported. “The Screening Level Ecological Risk Assessment concluded that ecological health risks due to Munitions Constituents in the surface water are possible, since lead and zinc exceeded ecological screening values (ESVs). Since no ambient surface water samples were collected, lead and zinc were not directly attributable to munitions.”

Pollution for unexploded munitions pose a variety of environmental risks in Southern Shores, NC – Chart: Courtesy of Pro Publica

In 2017, ProPublica published “Bombs in Your Backyard, “ an investigation into the toxic pollution from former military sites in the United States. ProPublica used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain data as recent as 2015 from the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, which encompasses the FUDS Program. According to the 2015 data, the surface water in Southern Shores is categorized as a high risk to human and ecological health due to the contaminants.

However, the site is not scheduled to be studied again until 2040, according to a 2019 report from the Army Corps of Engineers.

There are more than 7,000 formerly used defense sites in the U.S. and approximately 2,700 have suspected contamination. Congressional appropriations for the FUDS program have averaged around $250 million per year. As of 2017, $150,000 had already been spent on evaluation of the Southern Shores site and an estimated $8.3 million is expected to be spent by 2046, according to ProPublica.

Carl Dokter, FUDS program manager for North Carolina, said the delay in the Army Corps revisiting Southern Shores is due to the large volume and costliness of other sites that pose greater threats to environmental health and public safety.

“Just to kind of give you a perspective, right now within my area of responsibility I have probably upwards of 40 to 50 projects, several hundred million dollars’ worth of work,” Dokter said.

Rachel Noble, assistant director for the Institute for the Environment in Morehead City, said that without further study at the Southern Shores site, it’s difficult to determine the level of risk the contamination presents to human or ecological health.

“My general feel is that a lot of these are contaminants – once they get into these kind of mixed aquatic and kind of sand (environments) like a cypress swamp – they can actually move from one place to another,” Noble said. “They’re not going to stay put, so to speak.”

According to the 2006 study, there is no exposure to drinking water because Southern Shores gets its drinking water from an aquifer two towns over in Kill Devil Hills. Noble said that she is more concerned by the ecosystem impacts.

“There are organisms that reside within those cypress swamps, and within those sediments and surface water environments, that are likely being impacted,” Noble said. “At the same time, even though I’m saying that, the cancer risk associated with some of the compounds that are found in munitions are quite high. So, you know, it’s hard to say. It’s not something that I would shrug off.”

Noble said that the next step should be a follow-up study conducted by an agency independent of the Army Corps of Engineers, such as a third-party analytical laboratory.

Brent McKee, director of graduate studies for marine science at UNC-Chapel Hill, said that he is most concerned about the presence of 2-nitrotoluene because it is carcinogenic and cannot be broken down by evaporation, meaning it would have to be physically removed from the environment.

“I think waiting 18 more years to study these things at the site is risky, mainly because of the 2-nitrotoluene,” McKee said. “Having said all that, I can also say that (there) is very little data on the direct effect of 2-nitrotoluene on humans. It is because of this lack of direct evidence that reports such as this one can downplay its immediate danger.”

Right now, the Southern Shores site is in the Interim Risk Management phase, Dokter said. Under this initiative, every five years the Army Corps mails a letter to landowners informing them that their land is part of a FUDS.

The Interim Risk Management initiative only deals with munitions and explosives of concern, meaning any groundwater, surface water or soil contamination sites are not addressed in the mailings, he said.

“It was designed to address explosive hazards,” Dokter said. “It certainly isn’t designed to leave anyone in the dark, I can assure you of that. I do believe the policy is adequate for what it is intended to do.”

Moving forward

At the end of Ogburn’s three-and-a-half-minute presentation, there was only one follow up comment from the town council.

“If a resident has a question or a concern or anything, they’re welcome to give the town hall a call,” Southern Shores Mayor Elizabeth Morey said.

Ogburn, who was unaware of the contamination prior to a February interview with UNC Media Hub, said he would like the site to be studied again as soon as possible, but he also understands that there are other sites in the FUDS Program that are of bigger concern.

Ogburn said the town’s priority is to provide residents and visitors with as much information as possible.

“There’s a lot of government regulations and regulatory authorities that have oversight of our natural resources and we depend on them to make sure they’re watchdogging these types of facilities and these types of chemicals,” Ogburn said. “I didn’t think that I would have to dig as deep as I did to find out, ‘What is the concern here?’”

UNC Media Hub reporter Arabella Saunders is a senior from Southern Shores majoring in journalism and English. Layna Hong is a senior from Charlotte majoring in journalism and Global Studies.

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