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Pentagon Report Blasts Ammunition Disposal Worker’s Death Sparks Study, Which Finds Lax Controls Leading To Live Rounds Mixed With Scrap

On March 18, a commercial scrap worker in Fontana, Calif., was killed when a 105-mm artillery round embedded in supposedly inert scrap metal exploded.

A Pentagon study to be released Friday concludes the death was not just an accident but a sign of a lax system at military installations for preventing live ammunition from being mixed with spent ammunition that is sold as scrap.

The 95-page report by the Pentagon inspector general found that controls “were ineffective” for the disposal of thousands of tons of spent ammunition and explosive shells. Safety policies were inadequate, those in place were obeyed only occasionally, and personnel inspecting potentially explosive material often had no specialized training.

“As a result, the public was sold or had access to discarded live ammunition, explosives and other dangerous articles (AEDA) or AEDA residue that had not been properly certified as inert,” the report concluded. It was written by Robert J. Lieberman, a top deputy to Inspector General Eleanor Hill.

The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee was to hold a hearing Friday on the issue. A copy of the report was obtained Thursday by The Associated Press.

The report concerns the roughly 200,000 tons of exploded shells and other explosives-related materials the military expends every year by firing and “demilitarization” programs. In many cases, spent shell casings, bomb bodies and conventional munitions components of many kinds are sold as scrap.

Pentagon regulations require thorough safety checks before the material is released to the public. The report found fault with these safety practices.

“Department of Defense controls for the disposal of AEDA residue by the military departments need major improvement,” the report concluded.

For example, only two of 16 installations visited by Pentagon inspectors washed or burned the fired and demilitarized munitions to eliminate explosive or chemical properties. At Fort Picket, Va., inspectors identified “a significant amount of potentially dangerous material that was collected from the (firing) range and presumably sold directly to scrap dealers.”

The fatality at the California scrap yard was not the only incident uncovered by the inspector general’s probe.

On April 16, 1996, a commercial scrap worker in Montana put supposedly expended flares and star clusters into a melting kettle and some of the material began exploding.

A month later, inspectors at the Sierra Army Depot, Calif., found 33 105-mm projectiles with potentially explosive live tracer components. The projectiles had been certified as inert.

And on July 22, 1996, a civilian contractor found a live MK-20 bomb included with scrap containers purchased by a private scrap dealer. A similar incident involving the same type munition occurred last December.

Each of the military departments and the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology responded to the report in writing. They largely concurred with its findings and, in most cases, agreed with its recommendations to impose stricter controls and more uniform rules and better train personnel to oversee explosives disposal.

The inspector general’s report covered 10 Army installations and two each of the Air Force, Navy and Marines. The report concluded that the safest way to handle fired ordnance may be to simply leave it on the firing range. But increasingly the military is running up against environmental rules that require the cleanup of ranges and a detailed accounting of expended ammunition.

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