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Army considers options for SD depot site cleanup

In this 2003 photo is the former housing area of the Black Hills Army Depot near of Edgemont, S.D. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Wednesday federal workers are drafting a plan to size up and clean up contamination from chemical weapons at the old Army depot where much of the U.S. military's munitions were stored from 1942 to 1967. (AP Photo/Doug Dreyer, File)

By Carson Walker

SIOUX FALLS (AP) — Federal workers are moving ahead with a plan to remove any lingering contamination to a swath of South Dakota farmland that once housed an Army depot where dangerous munitions were stored.

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Although the government shutdown forced the cancellation of this month's public meeting about possible cleanup options for the former Black Hills Army Depot site, Army Corps official John Miller said Thursday the meeting would instead be held early next year.

From 1942 to 1967, the former depot near Edgemont stored and eventually dismantled or destroyed bent, damaged or otherwise unusable weapons. Over the past two decades, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is charged with cleaning up formerly used defense sites, has unearthed and removed buried ordnance and cleaned up contaminated land at the site.

The land now is comprised of private ranches and national grasslands managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The depot's only current use is livestock grazing.

"We did not find any chemical munitions at all," said Miller, project manager for military munitions response and chemical weapons for the Army Corps in Omaha, Neb. "So the real risk is unexploded ordnance. It's all beneath the surface, so it's not an immediate risk. Even though there is the risk of unexploded ordnance, it's mitigated by the fact that people are not going to come in contact with it. And since the land use is grazing, nobody's going to plow it up or try to build on it."

Miller said government records show the U.S. has spent at least $560 million on the site since 1984.

The sprawling 21,095-acre site includes three areas where weapons were dismantled or destroyed: Burning Ground 2 on 1,627 acres of Forest Service property; Burning Ground 1 on 218 acres of private land; and the Chemical Plant Area consisting of 21 acres of a burn pit on Forest Service property and 33 acres on private property.

Workers started studying the three areas in 2011, Miller said. The agency is now drafting a plan outlining the level of contamination and possible cleanup options.

The depot's nickname is Igloo because of the 802 earthen igloo-like bunkers that housed the nation's arsenal not far from the Nebraska and Wyoming borders. Igloo also is the name of what is now a ghost town where about 5,000 base workers once lived, including a young Tom Brokaw, the former NBC newsman.

John Tanner, a 70-year-old Edgemont rancher who grew up next to the base, said the chemical weapons attack on Syrian people brought back memories for him. Workers destroying chemical weapons at the depot "would wait until there was an east wind, so it wouldn't blow it into Igloo," Tanner recalled. "Well then, that blew it into us.

"I know at least what the mustard gas is," he said of the Syrian attack that killed hundreds. "They were talking about the way it smelled and I am familiar with that."