WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 16, 2013) -- Low levels of alpha and beta radiological particles were detected in a weapons storage bunker, July 12, 2013, near Biggs Army Airfield at Fort Bliss, Texas, in an area called the "Snake Pit," said an installation spokesman.
No gamma particles, a more dangerous form of radiation, have been detected thus far, he said.
"At this time, we do not have information that would indicate any risk to the general public and there's no indication anyone has been impacted by exposure," said Maj. Joe Buccino, Fort Bliss public affairs officer, during a press conference at the installation, July 16.
The area where the contamination was detected already had limited-access restrictions. It was off-limits to the general public. The area, including several other bunkers, has now been cordoned off. A thorough inspection, including soil testing, is being conducted. The bunker is also known as "Building 11507."
The Air Force Safety Center, Army Public Health Command and Army Environmental Command are conducting the investigation, which will likely last several months, Buccino said.
Beginning in 2003, Fort Bliss used the bunker for issuing training gear for units mobilizing for deployment to Afghanistan.
Decades ago, a portion of the bunker had been protected with epoxy paint which was meant to seal in any alpha or beta particles. Over time, some of the paint was chipped or gouged as equipment was moved or dragged in and out of the bunker. Investigators think that is how the particles may have been released, Buccino said.
Buccino said levels at the site are so low, that investigators don't think there's an immediate health risk to those who were issued the equipment, mostly rifles and machine guns. However, the investigation is still in the initial stages.
Those who think they may have been exposed to the radiation or who have additional information about the bunker should call in at (915) 744-1255, (915) 744-1962, (915) 744-8263 or (915) 744-8264. The phone lines are being staffed around the clock.
The investigation began soon after a retired Airman brought his concerns to the Air Force Safety Office. He had feared an expansion of family housing to the area around Biggs Airfield. His identity has been withheld for reasons of privacy.
Buccino said that no expansion of family housing, however, was ever considered for that area. Additionally, the closest community to the area is El Paso, about a mile-and-a-half away. It is not likely to have been affected.
The Airman worked at Biggs Airfield from 1953 to 1959, when the field was an Air Force installation. Nuclear weapons were stored and maintained there at the time, and into the 1960s. Radioactive materials were buried in sealed containers 12 to 18 inches below ground, but well above the water table, the Airman reported.
The Airman thinks the radiation may have entered the bunker from towels used to wipe down those containers. There is not an indication that the Airman, now in his 70s, or anyone else has any adverse health issues as a result of working there.
"We took (the Airman's) concerns very seriously," Buccino said, emphasizing the thoroughness and transparency of the investigation as it moves forward.