When World War II ended, and the boys came home, the federal government turned most of its military sites to federal, local or private entities. But they also left in the ground gasoline and oil, lead and other chemicals, machinery, and even bullets and bombs.
At the end of the 20th century, governments tested several of those sites, including an area in and around Palm Beach International Airport, which was Morrison Field during World War II and the Palm Beach Air Force Base during the Korean War.
At the time, engineers and outside consultants said levels of contaminants weren’t dangerous and they didn’t expect to seek money for a cleanup.
But last month, the state came back.
Contractors for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection took soil samples at locations that include a lake on airport’s east side, a gutted plane fuselage used for fire training and a lawnmower shed at the Trump International Golf Course.
According to a work plan dated Jan. 20, inspectors were to look at five areas:
Two burn pits used for plane crash fire training by Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue at an airplane shell visible to motorists on Congress Avenue. A 1985 inspection detected lead above standards in the pits. The 7,500-square-foot fire training area was tested in the 1990s for chemicals, including pesticides, and toxic PCBs — polychlorinated biphenyls — but none was found. Some of the metals found — magnesium, lead, zinc, chromium — were in levels below state standards, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said at the time. The site is covered by 14 feet of fill.
A landfill at the airport’s northeast corner that’s now a lake, built between 1985 and 1986. Airport employees told the inspectors in the 1990s that they found both military and commercial waste when they dug out landfills to make the lake, but no ammunition or explosives. A second landfill, the “Servico” site, where high levels of contaminants were found, already is being cleaned up under the EPA’s “brownfields” program and wasn’t part of this inspection.
A shooting range that was part of Morrison Field but now is north of the PBIA property; it also was not inspected but might be in 2018.
An ammunition and explosives storage area south of the airport along Summit Boulevard, in and around what’s now the Trump International Golf Course, the Palm Beach County School District’s central bus compound and the main U.S. post office. One structure still is used at the Trump club to store lawn maintenance machinery and other equipment. Two explosives storage bunkers, a separate explosives storage area, and a latrine and pump room all were on what’s now the post office and bus compound sites. Munitions bunkers were under where the post office building now stands.
A large field across Belvedere Road from the northwest corner of the airport that reportedly was a firefighting training site and might have been contaminated, according to information given by the U.S. Army Corps to The Palm Beach Post for a June 1999 article. The consultants said they could not find anything in Corps files about this site. Contractors did samplings anyway.
U.S. Army Corps researchers said in 1999 that the fire training site had been tested by PBIA officials in 1990 and by the Corps in 1992, but not any of the other sites because they dealt mostly with weapons training and researchers didn’t believe they contained any dangerous chemicals.
It was the Corps that first approached the DEP around 2008 to take another look and the site was put into a long wish list of inspection locales, DEP site manager Jim McCarthy said Thursday.
The Department of Defense started its Defense Environmental Restoration Program, making the Corps the lead agency, in 1984. The Corps initially chronicled 384 sites across Florida, ranging from tiny barracks to sprawling bases like the former Camp Murphy, some 10,300 acres of which lie within Jonathan Dickinson State Park in southern Martin County. In 1985, the Corps cleaned up debris — mostly the remains of old buildings — there and and at Jupiter Hills Country Club, also once part of Murphy.
Cleared of the need for cleanup: Boca Raton Army Air Field, now site of Boca Raton Municipal Airport and Florida Atlantic University.
In the late 1990s, the Corps spent $2.7 million to clean up a 22-mile stretch of beach from Stuart to Vero Beach, removing 175 tons of concrete, rubble, steel and other debris from the ocean floor.
And in 2013, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began a project to learn whether the ocean still held any of the foul cargo spilled when German U-boats, from Maine to Texas and from California to Alaska, sank about 400 ships, killing about 5,000 and sending fuel, oil, paint, cotton, sugar, airplanes, tanks and trucks to the bottom. Those included 24 ships sunk off Florida, 16 of those from Cape Canaveral to Boca Raton., between February and May 1942.