Cleanup underway at old Naval Ammunition Depot near Hastings

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HASTINGS, Neb. (KSNB) - For decades, central Nebraskans have known of the former Naval Ammunition Depot near Hastings. Scores of buildings and hundreds of storage silos still stand. From 1943 to 1966, bombs made here helped the U.S. through three wars.

The Army Corp of Engineers is undertaking a massive cleanup project at the old Naval Ammunition Depot near Hastings. (Source: KSNB)

There's another chapter to the story that may not be as well known, and the remnants of it are just now being cleared up. Every bit of ammunition made out at the NAD, especially rocket delivery systems, had to be tested. There is an area many square miles in size on the current U.S. Meat Animal Research Center, was used for their firing range. It's an area described by John Kochefko, an ordinance and explosives safety specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"Project 15 was a rocket test range," said Kochefko. "(That's) where they would go and test rockets in various configurations to verify what was made over on the ammunition assembly part of the installation functioned the way it was supposed to."

Through the years, workers at the Meat Animal Research Center tell stories of finding spent ordinance, which they would dispose. That was brought to the attention of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"And so, because of those reports, we wanted to come out, as the Department of the Defense, do our due diligence and see if there was risk," said Adrian Goettemoeller, a project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Since April, under Corps supervision, private contractors, using high quality metal detecting equipment. has been searching for items underground. A second crew verifies what they find and flags areas of interest. A 3rd crew digs it up. In many cases, it's what was left behind after testing rockets. Crews have dug up many rocket shells and bombs. Most of them as "dummy" bombs and present no immediate danger. Others may have live bombheads or fuses on them.

"If they find anything munitions related, they have to verify that it is free of explosive hazard," said Kochefko."If it's not free of explosive hazard, then we have to use explosives to make it free of explosive hazard."

That is done by surrounding the munitions with explosives, covering them back up with dirt, and destroying it with a blast. Kochefko said most explosions don't end up much louder than firing a gun and do minimal damage to the ground.

"We're looking for rockets, and they range from fairly small all the way up to the largest we've found so far is the 11-point-one inch Tiny Tim," he said.

Scouring every square inch of the firing range area would take too much time and cost too much money. They will determine a level of risk or contamination for the area, then present a proposed plan of action to the public

"That proposed plan will have an alternative that will help to reduce risk at the site," said Goettemoeller.

They will continue the project until November when weather continues will force them to stop. They will pick back up where they left off in the spring. It's expected to be a multi-year project. Goettemoeller said it could be a few years yet before they are ready to present a report to the public.

In addition to potential explosives, Goettemoeller said they will report on what, if any, possible chemical risks to the soil and groundwater.

Meanwhile, normal work continues at MARC.

"The level of risk associated with them is relatively low," said Kochefko.