Defusing a Controversy

This week's announcement that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the U.S. Department of Defense have settled their legal fight over the cleanup of the former Lowry Bombing Range allowed both sides to save face. But sources say the split-the-difference compromise was the result of lucky timing--a cutting-edge piece of technology falling into place at exactly the right moment--as much as any skilled negotiation or compromise from either side.

The health department filed the lawsuit last June after becoming frustrated with what state officials viewed as the DOD's lackadaisical effort to determine how many unexploded bombs still peppered the 60,000-acre range east of Aurora on the old Buckley Air National Guard base ("Bombs Away," December 25, 1997). Thanks to incomplete historical records kept by the Army, no one knows for sure how many shells remain on the site or where they are. The last cleanup of the field--extremely inadequate according to today's standards--was conducted in the 1950s; it yielded about forty tons of debris.

Spurring the state to its legal attack was a nonchalant-sounding 1995 letter from the DOD to Lowry residents advising them not to dig on their property because of the risk of getting blown up. (About half the site is owned by the State Land Board; the rest is divvied up among the cities of Aurora and Denver and a handful of private owners.) The letter prompted a well-attended public meeting on the issue of live ordnance remaining on the old Buckley Field.

Despite such pressures, the state contended in its lawsuit, the DOD was still using a mathematical model that drastically underestimated the number of dangerous shells left under the soil. Moreover, the DOD had inspected only 2 percent of the former range east of Aurora. The result, the state claimed, was a dangerously inadequate assessment of the remaining risks at the site.

Six months ago state officials increased the pressure on the DOD, hoping to force the giant federal agency to settle the case. But the DOD resisted. A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers, which is responsible for the Lowry cleanup, did not return calls to explain the DOD's position. But as a source close to the lawsuit points out, "The Army doesn't like to take orders. There's a culture there."

More important, though, was that the DOD didn't want to get ensnared in a legal precedent. There are an estimated 2,000 old bombing ranges across the country that someday will need to be cleared of their still-dangerous ordnance; Colorado was the first state to sue the DOD to clean one up. The DOD feared that if the state convinced a judge that Lowry's fields must be cleaned according to the health department's specifications, other states could use the legal decision to impose their own requirements.

According to the DOD's estimates of how much it would cost to purge Lowry of the Army's firing-range debris, those requirements would not be cheap. The DOD estimated that the cost of cleaning the site in the traditional manner--using grunts to walk every square foot of the fields and identify bombs--ranged from $1,000 to $3,000 an acre, or up to $180 million. And that didn't include the cost of removing the stuff; predictions of the final cost climbed into the billions.

Enter Roger Vickers. A former Colorado State University professor who now works at SRI International, a nonprofit research company in Menlo Park, California, Vickers has spent the past quarter-century building radar.

Not just any radar, though. Vickers has devoted most of his time to tinkering with a highly sophisticated version of an old technology called synthetic aperture radar, or SAR. First used by NASA to peer through the dense clouds of Venus and later to map the canals and foundations of ancient Mayan civilizations from the air, SAR is an Yber-radar.

Yet even as it has advanced, the technology has always had its limitations. When mounted on an airplane, for instance, the radar could detect objects underground but not necessarily identify them. (The Army has still managed to use it successfully to find buried mine fields, but only because the explosives are usually laid out in predictable, easily identifiable patterns.)

In addition, SAR has not been able to penetrate all types of ground for a clear look underneath the soil. While the sophisticated radar proved useful in seeing buried mines in Kuwait, for instance, that was possible mainly because of the loose, porous sand in which the bombs were concealed. Denser earth has been considerably more difficult to pierce. "And seeing into wet clay is impossible," Vickers says.

Recently, Vickers began experimenting with longer-wave radar in the hopes of seeing deeper and more clearly into hard ground--the same principle that makes longer-wave amber lights superior to regular white headlights for penetrating thick fog. A 1992 flyover test of the technology at a Nevada site that had been "planted" with mines proved promising.

Then, in 1995, Vickers was able to try out the new SAR on his first "live" site, Camp Croft in North Carolina. Although the old military site was covered with dense foliage and thick soils, the radar recognized the ma-jority of the ordnance buried underground with effective clarity. It was simple good fortune that the final results of the North Carolina tests were being analyzed just as Colorado's health department and the DOD began butting heads over what to do at Lowry.

For the health department, SAR technology offered a far superior method of cleaning up the old site than that which had been proposed by the DOD. For the DOD, Vickers's technology was a fortuitous and much less expensive solution to the legal and financial obstacles presented in the Colorado lawsuit. With the lawsuit settled, there is no entangling legal precedent. And Vickers estimates it will cost him between $20 and $50 per acre to survey Lowry for old bombs--a mere 2 percent of the Army's initial estimates.

Vickers cautions that his technology is still new and, to a degree, untested, and he warns both sides to keep their expectations in check. For instance, it is not known whether SAR will be able to distinguish between surface debris and dangerous buried ordnance. (Vickers plans to compare the radar readings with surface photos to eliminate some of this problem.)

The advanced radar is also limited in the detail it can grasp. "We probably won't be able to pick up any small-caliber rifle shells--anything under sixty millimeters," Vickers says. "I really don't want to oversell the technology. It will be cost-effective for Buckley, but I don't think it will find everything."

Still, for Vickers, the SAR flyovers at Lowry, which will most likely occur in July and August, have huge financial implications. With SRI International getting 70 percent of its business from government contracts, the hundreds of former bombing ranges across the country awaiting a cheap cleanup solution present a rich load of future work.

"We fully expect Buckley to be a jewel in the sky for us," Vickers says.

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