Rail spur soon will cart solid to Lakehurst

Published in the Asbury Park Press 5/11/02

A nearly completed railway spur will connect freight train service to Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Station for the first time in more than 30 years, as preparations continue for moving nearly 13,000 cubic yards of plutonium-tainted soil and concrete from a Cold War missile site.
That's enough material to cover a football field more than 2 feet deep. In all that volume, the total amount of plutonium could probably fit in a 1-inch cube, says King Mak, the Air Force project engineer for the Bomarc missile site cleanup.

But plutonium's reputation for extreme toxicity raised alarms among mayors and residents of towns that border vast military reservations in western Ocean and Burlington counties. Now, instead of trucking the dirt on public highways, the $9.6 million cleanup project will use gravel roads on federal land in the Pinelands and the new, 3,000-foot rail connection between the Navy base and the Conrail siding in Lakehurst.

"It's ready for Conrail to put in the switch," said Tony Glennon, whose Piscataway company, T. Glennon Inc., is installing the tracks.

The last 900 feet of rail enters the Navy base at its south truck gate on Route 547. To accommodate the cleanup project, the Air Force paid for the Navy to relocate the truck gate farther north, near the Seabees construction battalion compound.

Along the track, workers leveled crushed stone to serve as the loading area. After traveling 11.4 miles through the woods -- mostly along the Navy base perimeter road -- the trucks will pull up here and the steel containers of soil loaded on the train cars using a crane, said Larry Lyford, a spokesman for the Lakehurst base.

"There will probably be two to three (trains) a week for about six months. We're looking at about 12,500 cubic yards of soil and 440 cubic yards of building debris, mostly concrete and asphalt," said Lt. Diane Weed, a spokeswoman at McGuire Air Force Base.

The demolition and digging work could start around the end of May or middle of June, Weed said.
Lead contractor Duratek Inc., a radioactive waste remediation company based in Columbia, Md., will take out a concrete missile shelter and nearby pavement. It was the scene of a June 7, 1961, fire that destroyed a Bomarc ground-to-air missile and melted its thermonuclear warhead.  Washed away in the firefighting water was plutonium, the warhead's radioactive fuel. Over the decades, studies and samplings detected traces of the dense metal at various spots around nearly seven acres.
Just 5 percent of the soil is contaminated enough to qualify as class A low-level radioactive waste, the government's lowest classification, Mak has said.

The dug soil will be loaded into covered steel boxes, called intermodal shipping containers because they can be carried on different modes of transportation -- in this case, by truck and then onto flatbed rail cars.

In all it's calculated the six-month project will require 832 truck loads and 208 train cars to haul away the dirt and rubble, Air Force officials say.

From the base, the train cars will be moved at night to the Conrail siding, and there hauled up the line through Monmouth and Middlesex counties before switching for the journey west. The final stop will be the Envirocare low-level radioactive waste landfill in remote Tooele County, Utah.
After the plan was presented earlier this year, mayors who had been critical of the original plan for trucking the soil on local highways expressed satisfaction with the changes. Even in Leisure Knoll, a Manchester senior community alongside the Conrail tracks, few residents express misgivings, said Cromwell Court resident James Donaldson.

"There's very little conversation about it. I don't know if it's a matter of people not having the information, whether they know about it and are satisfied or complacent, or what," Donaldson said.

Trains now pass "maybe five times a week" at low speed, Donaldson said. The noise from trains "is not a problem," he said, compared to noise from the nearby Reade Manufacturing Co. where bulk magnesium metal is ground to flakes and powders in massive processing machines.

Members of the Navy Lakehurst Historical Society say the cleanup project revives what used to be a main artery for the base, back when it was a key center for the Navy's budding air arm.
"The reasons Lakehurst was chosen as an air station was it was close to the coast, it was cheap, $13,000, and it was close to a railroad," said Rick Zitarosa, the society historian. "Railroading was very crucial to the early operations of the base."

The Philadelphia Navy Yard made components for airships and shipped the pieces by rail, Zitarosa said. The tracks ran beyond the new railway, then curved up and over to the Hangar One, where trains could be driven right into the massive airship shed.

The Navy operated its own little railroad to bring up supplies from town. "I ran it in 1934 for seven or eight months," said John Iannacone of Lakewood, who was then a petty officer in the Navy.

The Navy's engine was gasoline-powered, actually built by the Plymouth automotive company, Iannacone said.

"It would go about 20 mph," he said. "It was parked at the east end of Hangar One. When there was a call to go pick up supplies, they'd leave a message for me and I'd take the train down and get them.

"Most of the cars were helium," the bottled lighter-than-air gas used to inflate airships, Iannacone said. An early model gas tank car with 24 steel bottles was replaced in the mid-30s by an improved design with three very large bottles, he recalled.

Lakehurst was a military installation, but it was something else too: America's East Coast commercial airship terminal, and a tourist attraction. Back in the 1920s and '30s, what is now the Conrail line was the Central Jersey Railroad, route of the famous Blue Comet passenger line linking northern New Jersey and Atlantic City.

"They used to load up seven or eight cars in Jersey City and bring them down. 'See the airships at Lakehurst,' the ad would say," Zitarosa said. The excursion trains switched off the main line at Lakehurst and rolled right up to Hangar One, he said.

When America entered World War II, the Lakehurst base grew quickly to support a blimp fleet used for antisubmarine patrols. The rail line was extended west so trains could deliver massive wooden trusses used to build Hangars 5 and 6, Zitarosa said.

As in much of America, private automobile travel and trucking made Lakehurst's rails seem out-moded by the 1960s.

"The rail connection was ripped out in 1968," Zitarosa said. "And in typical government fashion, they left boxcars on site, and they had to be cut up -- because they couldn't be moved by rail."

Kirk Moore: (732) 557-5728

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