No highways: Bomarc cleanup may use rail line

Published in the Asbury Park Press 1/10/02

Contractors could start work in April to remove nearly 13,000 cubic yards of soil and concrete contaminated with traces of plutonium from the old Bomarc air defense missile site in Plumsted.

The dirt and rubble would be hauled by truck, over back roads on federal land, to a new railway siding to be built at Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Station. That's a major change to the original cleanup plan, in response to objections from local mayors who didn't want the material trucked on public highways.

"I can't tell you how much happier I am that it's not going to be transported over local roads," said Manchester Mayor Michael Fressola, a vocal critic of the project when it was first announced last January.

The Air Force unveiled its revised plan in Jackson yesterday and will present it at public sessions this week from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., at town halls in Plumsted today, Manchester on Friday and Lakehurst on Saturday.

From the Lakehurst naval base, the soil would be transported in sealed containers on a Conrail freight line to a switching yard in northern New Jersey, then head west on an 18-day journey taking it to the Envirocare hazardous waste landfill in remote Tooele County, Utah.   The Conrail line goes through Monmouth County, which was not involved in the controversy that greeted the original plan in Ocean County.

Last night, Howell Mayor Timothy J. Konopka said it sounded as though federal officials were making good safety preparations for the rail transport, but he added that township officials would contact McGuire Air Force Base to learn more.

"I'd make sure all the precautions are in place. It sounds like all the major concerns will be addressed," Konopka said.
The plan has "come a long way from what it was," said Jackson Mayor Michael Broderick. "I'm glad to see they had made some radical changes."

"The thing we learned in the original plan is it would have worked, but we failed to understand the perceptions and concerns over plutonium," said Col. James Pugh, vice commander of the 305th Air Mobility Wing at McGuire.   It's estimated to cost $9.6 million -- a big price tag for getting rid of what Air Force project engineer King Mak said probably amounts to less than one cubic inch of the dense radioactive metal, spread out across 7 acres during a 1961 missile fire.

Out of 12,500 cubic yards of soil and 440 cubic yards of concrete and asphalt, just about 5 percent of the material will carry enough plutonium to qualify as class A low-level radioactive waste, the government's lowest classification, Mak said.

"The other 95 percent is just soil," he added.

Plutonium poses risk
Plutonium is highly toxic if it is inhaled or swallowed, when its particles lodge in the human body and emit alpha radiation.
But undisturbed in the ground or a sealed container, Air Force safety experts say it poses little danger; a sheet of newspaper is enough shielding to stop alpha particles.

Still, plutonium has a half-life -- the time it takes for the element to lose half its radioactivity -- of 24,000 years, and the Air Force decided it can never ensure that particles left at the fire scene would never pose a risk.

"I will never be thoroughly convinced that this wouldn't have been better handled by encapsulement on site," said Fressola. But state Pinelands environmental regulations prohibit permanent waste storage in the forest, he said.

During the Cold War years, the Air Force based nuclear-armed missiles at the Plumsted site, ready to launch on short notice against attacking Soviet bombers.

A June 7, 1961, fire in one missile shelter destroyed a Bomarc weapon and melted its warhead, leaving a few ounces of plutonium scattered across the 7 acres.

The new 11.4-mile truck route leads from the Bomarc site on Route 539 through uninhabited pine forest, following existing perimeter roads on the Navy property.   Navy civil engineers say the roads need little work aside from trimming some trees and minor paving.

Soil and rubble from the work site will be packed in covered steel boxes, called intermodal containers, that are designed to be lifted by crane straight off the trucks and onto flatbed rail cars, said David Ramineh, project manager for IT Corp., one of the Air Force contractors.
At the Navy station, an old rail spur off the Conrail line will be rebuilt, and additional tracks and an at-grade crossing with gates will be built across Route 547, where the base's commercial truck gate is now.

A new truck gate will be built a half-mile north off the highway, near the base Seabees' compound, so "that way we won't have any conflict with the business of Lakehurst and the heavy truck traffic from our guys," Col. Pugh said.

The digging could start by the end of April if preparations are complete and be finished in September, weather permitting, Mak said.
The work site would be covered with plastic, and diversion swales would make sure no rain water moves soil around during the excavation, Ramineh said.

It's estimated the transport would take 832 truckloads across the Navy base and 208 rail car loads to Utah, Mak said.
Kirk Moore: (732) 557-5728

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