CAMP BONNEVILLE — Sitting in an all-terrain vehicle near the center of a former Camp Bonneville firing range, Clark County engineer Jerry Barnett sees both the past and future of the site.
The range, roughly the size of two football fields, is lined with old concrete blocks once used to prop up targets gussied up as Soviet soldiers. The spot was intended for machine gun use, for U.S. Army target practice up to 1,000 meters. But as cleanup crews removed old munitions from the site over the past few years, it became clear the location had been used to try out all types of explosives.
In fact, all the camp’s fields — even the parade grounds — were used for a hodgepodge of ways to blow things up. The site was an active range between 1909 and 1995.
Crews have found everything from World War I-era mortars to 35 mm subcaliber rockets popular in the 1970s littered across the camp’s 3,840 acres. There’s a chance of discovering World War II-era rockets, which are particularly pesky because the practice and high explosive rounds look nearly identical. There are grenades, fixed artillery rounds and other things that go “boom,” with manufacture dates reaching back to the early 1900s.
Specialists cleaning the site say digging into the grounds of Camp Bonneville is like delving into a munitions history book. You just never know what chapter you’re going to turn to.
But seven years from now, the plan is to have an RV camping site where machine guns once shredded targets. To the south, there may be an equestrian center. An amphitheater is tentatively planned just to the east.
“Nothing is certain,” said Barnett, the project manager at the camp. “We need to revisit the expected use, but these things have been talked about.”
The real goal, Barnett says, is the same as it’s always been: Get the site “open to the public.”
For the past five months, about 30 explosive ordnance disposal experts from Weston Solutions Inc. have worked to get the county closer to that goal.
Hired by Clark County this year to reboot the cleanup effort at the explosives-riddled camp, Weston is tasked with clearing out Phase One of the 3,840-acre, mostly forested land on the east side of Clark County.
The first of four planned cleanup phases, the work encompasses 449 acres of the lowest points of the camp. It requires crews to dig 14 inches deep to remove explosives, and it’s expected to take until June 2014. The entire effort is expected to be complete by 2019.
The U.S. Army has agreed to pay Weston just under $7 million for this first phase. The Army is paying Clark County a bit more to manage the cleanup.
The work involves scanning the earth with machines that map underground anomalies, planting hundreds of colored flags and then carefully digging up the spots where there might be bombs.
The goal is to remove both dangerous explosives, which could maim or kill, and spent munitions, which can taint the land with chemical runoff.
“What makes this site so unique is, there is a little bit of everything here,” said George Overby, project manager for Weston. “From 14.5 mm rounds up to the big 105 mm (ammunition). It’s a wide variety.”
About 1 percent of the explosives that crews discover are active, and when those types are discovered, they’re often detonated on the spot. There’s no need to salvage an old bomb still seeking to fulfill its purpose of destroying something.
“All our people are ex-military EOD (explosive ordnance disposal),” Overby said. “They know what they’re doing. A lot of people think you’re out there poking at the ground with a stick, but there is a lot of science to it. And, yes, you have to be careful.”
Carefulness is key for the county — not just in the physical act of removal, but also with the fiscal oversight of the project.
Cleanup came to a halt in 2009 when then-project-lead Mike Gage declared the Army had misrepresented the amount of work to be done at the base.
The Army told the county it should expect to find about “15 or 20” devices, said county munitions safety adviser Greg Johnson.
“Between (October of) 2006 and when work stopped in (September of) 2009 … they pulled out around 1,500,” Johnson said.
Officials say they have stopped even trying to guess the volume of ordnance on the site.
The Army had agreed to pay Gage’s nonprofit, Bonneville Conservation Restoration and Renewal Team, $28.6 million for cleanup work across the entire camp. But when work stopped, Gage fell under criticism by the Army for squandering funds on opulently priced meals, picking up bar tabs and purchasing gift boxes.
In May 2010, the county terminated the contract with Gage, and for nearly two years Camp Bonneville went uncleaned.
Now the county has a new deal.
“With Weston, it’s a limited scope. The first phase is just the valley floor,” said Pete Capell, county public works director. “That way, we have the option to hire them for more if the first phase goes well.”
Capell said that while the payment is still a fixed-price model, the limited scope of work gives the county more control over spending at the site.
Barnett said the county is currently preparing to estimate costs for Phase Two of cleanup, which will include more-heavily used areas. He said the Army will be paying for all four phases.