IGLOO | The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is installing barbed-wire fence to close off part of a defunct military depot near Edgemont, but some area residents say the move will prove ineffective at stopping potential danger from lingering explosives and toxic contamination at the remote site.
The agency hopes by the end of the year to extend a fence to fully enclose a 904-acre portion of the Black Hills Army Depot, citing potential explosive hazards. The nearly two-mile fence project comes after the Corps reviewed swaths of the roughly 21,100-acre depot, dubbed "Igloo," and decided to spend about $500,000 over 30 years on education efforts and to seal part off.
It'll be "as effective as spitting in the wind" at keeping people out, Fall River County Commissioner Michael Ortner wrote on behalf of the county board. "Hunters are well known to ignore fences," he said later.
Cindy Brunson, whose ranch includes parts of the depot, knows the spot in her fence where scrappers broke in several years ago to steal metal. In the fall, she came across a trespasser who wanted to see the old buildings, which still dot the site decades after the depot's closure in 1967.
The plan is a "waste of taxpayer's money," said Brunson, who lives at a former school in a neighborhood of abandoned wood buildings and chimneys standing in empty lots.
The depot got its nickname because of the 802 earthen igloo-like bunkers that housed the nation's arsenal near the Nebraska and Wyoming borders. The ghost town where about 5,000 base workers once lived carries the same name.
Now, Brunson puts cattle in some of the bunkers in the winter.
The Corps, charged with cleaning up formerly used defense sites, has removed buried ordnance and cleaned up contaminated land at the site for years.
The agency said in a document earlier this year that there's a risk for people, including hunters, ranchers and government employees, to come into contact with explosives within the 904-acre area of concern, which sits inside "Burning Ground 2." Those walking in the area could be hurt by munitions and explosives on the ground, if they are present.
Among the least costly options considered short of doing nothing about the hazard area, the 10,000 feet of new five-strand barbed wire fencing also includes a warning sign component.
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"What do you do? If someone wants to break the law, they're going to break the law," said Taunya Howe, remedial project manager with the Army Corps, noting that officials will likely continue addressing areas around the depot.
In the document outlining the decision, the Corps said the fence would limit access to the 904 acres of public land in question, much of which is already fenced off. Officials believe, in conjunction with education efforts, it will effectively reduce hazards at a reasonable cost compared to other options.
The Corps figures it would take $120.6 million to remove munitions and explosives from the first foot of soil in the area, while partial removal options would cost from $35.4 million to $94.5 million.
The sprawling land the Corps examined includes other areas where weapons were destroyed, but where the agency concluded action wasn't required.
The "Chemical Plant Area" was used from 1949 through the 1960s for the renovation and destruction of weapons including mustard agent, cyanogen chloride and phosgene bombs ranging from 100 to 1,000 pounds.
The Corps considers the chemical area uncontaminated by munitions and explosives of concern and chemical warfare materiel. The agency said chemicals of potential concern remain in the subsurface soil.
Fall River County officials are "very concerned" about potential air and water contamination, Ortner wrote in the letter, calling at minimum for air-quality monitoring. The army should "err on the side of caution rather than doing the minimum required," he said later.
But John Tanner, a 72-year-old rancher about a mile west of the depot, dismissed the worries.
"All the damage was done while it was still a depot when they were burning their gas and all that stuff," said Tanner, who still remembers the burn and stink of the wafting mustard gas fumes. "There ain't nothing there now."