Land once shot up now needs cleanup

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 26, 2011 - 7:35 AM

Training sites used for years throughout the state now could be contaminated with lead.

Howard Vogel is framed by a bullet-riddled wooden target wall.
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Howard Vogel is framed by a bullet-riddled wooden target wall on his farm in St. Peter. The Minnesota ­National Guard used the farm as a shooting range on several weekends each year in the 1980s and 1990s.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Staff photographer

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ST. PETER, MINN. - The little meadow tucked behind the old farmhouse holds an almost mystical quality for Howard and Phyllis Vogel. Their daughter demanded to be married amid its bucolic beauty, and their two sons spent their days there, often taking sleeping bags and staying the night, even during the winter.

For more than a decade, the meadow had another role, too. A couple of times a year, the men from the 125th Field Artillery Service Battery of the Minnesota National Guard spent a weekend there doing annual weapons qualifications. They built a wooden target wall 40 feet long and 7 feet high and built up an earthen firing berm.

Before the practice stopped in the mid-1990s, they shot thousands of rounds of ammunition into the gently sloping hillside at the Vogel farm. The wooden target wall is still there, parts of it looking like delicate latticework from all the bullets.

As part of an unprecedented national effort to identify former training sites that might pose human or environmental threats -- mainly from lead -- the Minnesota Army National Guard has inventoried its former firing ranges and munitions sites and found 12 sites at 11 locations that could be included in a list for possible cleanup, including the Vogel firing range.

In a way, the sites are a historic record of the role of the Guard in Minnesota's rural areas through the years, where informal agreements between landowners and local weekend citizen-soldiers usually consisted of nothing more than a handshake. But they now could be a real headache to clean up.

Howard Vogel was a member of the Guard for 22 years, and his great-great-grandfather fought in the Civil War with the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He is blunt in what he wants done with his land.

"If there's something that needs to be taken out of there, I want them to do it," he said.

Forty-eight other sites were identified during this statewide effort and determined to be ineligible, but they still could contain some low-level contamination.

The Camp Lakeview Sportsman's Club in Lake City still uses the land of a former munitions range, but no one has shot there since 1993, and certainly not with the cannons used during training in the early 1900s.

It's not particularly clear, but a semi-annual artillery competition between the Minnesota and Wisconsin national guards may have involved shooting 13 1/2-pound cannonballs at each other from across the Mississippi River.

Many of the sites now are covered with trees and vegetation and are barely visible except for a berm rising from the ground or a vine-covered and bullet-riddled concrete wall constructed in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration. While some sites are still used for maneuvers and scout training, all weapons training for the Minnesota National Guard now occurs at Camp Ripley near Little Falls.

The Guard is overseeing inspections of more than 400 sites in 48 states and two territories, the latest effort by the Defense Department to identify and remediate contaminated defense sites after a 2002 congressional order. It hopes to complete the site inspections by late 2012 and begin cleanup of sites that qualify after that.

None of the sites in Minnesota have shown any evidence of such things as unexploded ordinance, but practice rockets and other ordinance have been found in sites in South Dakota and Colorado. Less than 14 percent of the sites inspected nationally were used for artillery practice.

Once the analysis of the nation's sites is complete, the Defense Department will prioritize the cleanup, based on how high the levels of contaminants are in parts per million, what the land is being used for and who lives nearby. Even sites previously determined to be ineligible might qualify if the contamination can be tied specifically to Guard use and the site has a defined boundary.

"We'd hate to leave something hanging out there and not take responsibility," said Anna Hudson, cleanup program manager for the Army National Guard.

Get the lead out

Unlike the Superfund site in Arden Hills, where contamination from solvents, semi-volatiles, metals and PCBs occurred at the now-defunct Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant, it is believed the Guard training sites would be almost exclusively contaminated with lead.

Lead, particularly from ammunition shot into the ground, is a dangerous but less problematic contaminant. Clean-up, if needed, would involve removing the contaminated soil and replacing it with clean fill.

"Most of it is on the surface, and human contact would be the issue," said Ken Auer, an environmental specialist with the Minnesota National Guard. "There was no trenching or digging; the berms were at grade or above. Lead tends to sit; it doesn't move much. If you touched it or kids rolled around in it, it might be a problem. That's far-fetched, but that would be the major danger of being exosed."

Most lead poisoning comes from low levels of exposure over a long period and interferes with the development of the nervous system. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, confusion, headache and anemia.

Any cleanup would be supervised by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, which would approve any final plans. Funding would be provided by the Army National Guard through its annual environmental budget.

"Part of that next evaluation is to see if there is contamination present," said Gary Krueger, a project manager in the state's Superfund program. "If someone is living nearby or there are people working nearby, what is the risk potential? That's really the next step."

Meantime, homeowners are left to await the results.

Robert Licari has owned a portion of what was called Biwabik Small Arms Range in northern Minnesota for 18 years, and locals still refer to the property as the Rifle Range. Folks now live near the 14-acre site.

The Minnesota Guard used the site for about five years in the early 1950s, and a concrete target wall remains there amid the vegetation. When military inspectors recently came to his property, Licari, who grew up in the area, admitted to concerns that there might be something harmful on his property, but he said he is less disturbed after confirming that the land was used exclusively for small-arms practice.

"I'd be more worried about how much was left by locals than anything the Army did," he said.

Star Tribune staff librarian John Wareham contributed to this story. Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434

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Howard Vogel is framed by a bullet-riddled wooden target wall.