The Greening of a Pentagon Ammunition Plant
August 28, 2015
Laura Olah / Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger
The 7,400-acre Badger Army Ammunition Plant was once the largest ammo plant on Earth. Cleanup costs for the plant were expected to top $250 million. Now, thanks to extensive restoration efforts, the Sauk Prairie Recreation Area has been opened to the public for hiking, biking, skiing and bird-watching. The Badger plant, once a contaminated military wasteland, now serves as a protective buffer for Devil's Lake State Park, connecting the wildlands between the Baraboo Hills and the Wisconsin River.
Special to Environmentalists Against War
The Toxic Legacy of an Ammunition Plant
Laura Olah / Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger
MERRIMAC, Wisconsin (August 2015) -- The 7,400-acre Badger Army Ammunition Plant (BAAP) was once the largest ammunition plant on Earth. Of the 40 contaminated military sites in Wisconsin, the Badger Army Ammunition Plant was the most polluted, with environmental cleanup costs expected to exceed $250 million. (The cleanup of all 24,000 contaminated military sites in the US may cost as much as $400 billion and will extend well into the next century.)
Built in 1942 in response to World War II, the production facilities at the Badger plant became obsolete a long time ago. Although not in production since the 1970's, maintenance of the Badger plant has cost in excess of $17 million per year. Meanwhile, environmental damage continued to plague the facility. Since 1975, there have been more than 56 chemical spills and incidents.
A 1990 Wisconsin Division of Health survey concluded that communities near the Badger plant had a significantly higher incidence of cancer deaths while the incidence of female non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and male ureter/kidney cancer deaths were 50% higher than average.
In 2015, explosive residues were still being detected in the groundwater beneath homes near the plant. Ten of the 17 "breakdown products" of dinitrotoluene (DNT, a toxic crystalline precursor of TNT) have been found in the local groundwater at levels ranging from 16.7 to 11,000 parts per billion (ppb). The state's Groundwater Enforcement Standard for DNT is 0.05 ppb.
There are 13 ponds within the BAAP site -- including natural kettle ponds, old farm ponds and ponds formed in borrow pits. The largest water body on the site, the 7-acre Ballistics Pond, drains about 1,000 acres north of the plant and 450 acres of plant property.
Not surprisingly, groundwater beneath the plant became contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals (including carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethylene and dinitrotoluenes) while 32 surface areas were polluted with high levels of solvents, toxic metals and explosive wastes. An area known as the Propellant Burning Grounds is the source of a three-mile long plume of contaminated groundwater that has polluted private wells and has seeped into the nearby Wisconsin River.
The Settling Ponds and Spoils Disposal area — a series of lagoons that run the length of the 7,000-acre facility — is contaminated with high levels of lead and DNT. Instead of a $60 million cleanup approved by both the State of Wisconsin and the EPA, the Army proposed erecting a fence and promising long-term monitoring of groundwater.
The 1992 Federal Facilities Compliance Act directed the EPA to require the Pentagon to comply with existing waste disposal laws but the 1997 Military Munitions rule exempts most military activities from compliance and allows the unregulated open burning and detonation of munitions.
There are three main types of waste burned at US military facilities: bulk raw explosives, small explosive-contaminated wastes (containers, clothing, filters), and large explosive-contaminated wastes (process vessels, pipes, building materials and soil).
Open burning and detonation generates uncontrolled releases of poisonous nitric oxide and particles containing lead, cadmium and chromium that are toxic to humans and bioaccumulative in the environment. Exposure to dinitrotoluenes puts soldiers, workers and nearby residents at increased risk for liver, kidney and breast cancers.
The government acquired the land for the Badger Ordnance Works on March 1, 1942. During its operational period, BAAP employed 7,500 people and manufactured 271 million pounds of single- and double-base propellant. The plant was reactivated for the Korean conflict and produced approximately 286 million pounds of propellants from1951 to 1957.
BAAP was placed in inactive status on March 1, 1958 but was reactivated again on December 23, 1965, a year after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution triggered an escalation of the US war on Vietnam.
Total production for this period was approximately 445 million pounds of single- and double-base propellant including 95 million pounds of ball propellant, 64 million pounds of rocket propellant, and 282 million pounds of smokeless powder. Finally, on November 6, 1997, the Army recommended the plant's closure. But even with the base closed, its legacy of contamination continued to threaten wildlife in and around the Badger area.
A 1993 Biological Inventory identified 16 unique natural communities within the base's boundaries. These included remnants of historic prairie, oak savanna, dry forest, southern hardwood swamp, pine relict, acid bedrock glade, and sandy meadows. Among the 598 plant species the survey identified 10 extremely rare species.
The 7,354-acre site was home to 47 species of birds including a large number of grasslands birds of "special concern." The inventory also recorded 25 species of butterflies, 137 species of aquatic insects, 15 species of mammals, and 16 species of reptiles and amphibians on the Badger plant property.
Many of these species were found in places with such unlikely names as the Rocket Area, the Magazine Area, the Acid Area, the Propellant Burning Grounds, the Nitroglycerine Pond and the Cannon Range. Most of these species had occupied the prairie long before the Badger plant was built.
One of the survey's major discoveries was the existence of the federally threatened prairie bush clover. The bush clover and purple milkweed are endangered species in , Wisconsin. The inventory reported at least six other threatened species including the slender bush clover, the drooping sedge, the wild quinine and round-stemmed false foxglove.
Native wildlife at risk from military contamination include small mammals (meadow voles, masked shrews, and field mice), carnivorous mammals (minks and coyotes), carnivorous birds (kestrels), and insect-eating birds (eastern bluebirds, tree swallows, house wrens, song sparrows).
The Army has identified cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, selenium, tin, zinc, and the explosive 2,4-Dinitrotoluene (DNT) as contaminants of concern. (The Army has found DNT in earthworms that are consumed by birds.) The effects of mercury on wildlife include stillbirths, abortions, behavioral deficits, impaired fertility, and other reproductive problems. (The Army's 2008 Ecological Risk Assessment did not address risks to osprey, vultures, deer, and other indigenous species. Nor were the risks to reptiles or amphibians evaluated.)
Scientists have found a rich variety of grassland birds singing in tall bending grasses, soaring over pastures dotted with grazing cattle, and nesting inside the hundreds of abandoned buildings scattered across the quiet acres of the shuttered ammo plant.
One of the world's most colorful raptors, the American Kestrel, is especially vulnerable to ammo plant's environmental contamination. Of the migratory birds undergoing the most serious declines, grassland birds have undergone many of the steepest declines, with two-thirds of America's grassland bird species in decline.
The feathered inhabitants of the abandoned base included the Peregrine Falcon (Endangered), Henslow's Sparrow and Osprey (Threatened), and the Bobolink, Grasshopper Sparrow, Red-headed Woodpecker, Field Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, Vesper Sparrow, Western Kingbird, Western Meadowlark, Upland Sandpiper, Cooper's Hawk, Dickcissel and Orchard Oriole (Special Concern). It is hoped that expanding existing grasslands might attract birds such as Northern Harriers and Short-Eared Owls.
Over the years, environmental testing has detected explosive residues in areas that both federal regulators and the Army believed were completely untouched by weapons activities. Although the Army's best information indicated these sites should have been clean, they were found to contain DNT contamination at levels above remediation goals -- even though there was no known history of manufacturing activities, spills, or disposal.
The EPA classifies DNT is classified as a probable human carcinogen. Exposure to high levels of two forms of DNT (2,4-DNT and 2,6-DNT) may affect the nervous system and the blood. The Army has tested soils for only two of the six isomers (forms) of DNT. (These four untested isomers are not biodegradable and remain more persistent in the soil.)
When the Army tested sediments at Gruber's Grove Bay on Lake Wisconsin, it reported that all the samples were below the approved cleanup goal of 0.36 ppm. But when Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources (DNR) conducted an independent sampling of sediments, they found the 6 out of 8 samples (failed to meet the 0.36 ppm cleanup goal.
The highest concentration found was 9.0 ppm, making it one of the worst mercury-contaminated sites in the state -- even after two extensive clean-ups involving dredging and sediment removal.
In 2003, Army testing at BAAP revealed that paint on buildings, pipes, tanks and other applications had PCB concentrations as high as 22,000 parts per million (ppm) – more than 400 times the federal threshold of 50 ppm. This discovery halted a proposal to burn more than 1,300 excess buildings.
An additional problem comes from the site's 130 miles of roads, most of which are unpaved and were treated with "road oil" to control dust. The oil used included refining wastes (containing PCBs, dioxins, and furans) and mineral-based crankcase oil (laced with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, aluminum, chromium, copper, iron, lead, manganese, nickel, silicon and tin.)
The legacy contaminants remains so troubling that proposed deed restrictions on the sale of BAAP property forbid any sales for commercial, residential, or recreational use.
Owing to the lingering presence of harmful chemicals, children, expectant mothers, the elderly and other susceptible populations have been advised to avoid certain areas and buildings at Badger that may contain lead, explosives, PCBs, asbestos, and other toxic substances.
Also off-limits: exposure to sediments at Gruber's Grove Bay, fish from the Ballistics Pond and "fugitive dust" in certain areas at Badger.
Decommissioning and Restoration
Under the Federal Lands to Parks program, Wisconsin's Department of Natural Resources was eligible for transfer of the ammo plant's lands at no cost if they were used for public parks and recreation purposes. On April 12, 2014, the DNR proudly opened a 3,400-acre portion of the site to the public.
Historically, this region had been a mosaic of tallgrass prairie, open woodland and scattered mixed forest. The large plain sandwiched between the Baraboo Hills and the Wisconsin River was known as the Sauk Prairie -- a 14,000-acre expanse of tall- and short-grass plains. The closing of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant presents a rare opportunity to protect a piece of prairie heritage that has almost been lost in Wisconsin and the Midwest.
The Baraboo Hills are nationally recognized for their outstanding geology and diverse ecological resources, including some 40,000 acres of mature second-growth forest that is home to 23 threatened or endangered species.
The Badger property presents the unusual opportunity to manage a continuum of prairie, savanna, and woodland vegetation stretching from the Badger prairie into the Baraboo Bluffs.
Wisconsin's Indigenous communities also made a formal request that approximately 3,050 acres of ammo plant's property be transferred in trust for the benefit of the Ho-Chunk Nation. The land lies within the heart of Ho-Chunk's aboriginal territory. (Ultimately, 1,600 acres were retuned to the stewardship of the Ho-Chunk Nation.)
The Ho-Chunk Nation's goals are to aid in cleaning-up the environment, ensuring a clean green space for people and wildlife. Protecting and preserving earthworks, mounds and cultural sites and re-establishing native plant and animals like the bison, will be essential to the revitalization of Ho-Chunk traditional practices and culture.
The Sauk Prairie Recreation Area now offers opportunities for hiking, biking, cross-country skiing and bird-watching. And the Badger ammo plant, once a contaminated military wasteland, now serves as a protective buffer for Devil's Lake State Park, helping to reduce habitat fragmentation by connecting the wildlands between Devil's Lake State Park, the Baraboo Hills, and the Wisconsin River.
Laura Olah is the executive director of Citizens for Safe Water Around Badger.
E12629 Weigand’s Bay South, Merrimac, WI 53561. (608)643-3124