By David VergunJuly 19, 2013
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, July 19, 2013) -- Test results of possible low-level radiation contamination of a weapons storage bunker at Fort Bliss, Texas, were normal, said an installation spokesman.
No harmful levels of radiation were found inside the bunker, with the exception of low levels of alpha and beta particles which are safely contained within the paint used in the bunker's interior, said Maj. Joe Buccino, Fort Bliss public affairs officer, during a press conference on the installation, July 19.
The epoxy used in the paint effectively sealed the particles, preventing their release, he explained.
No gamma particles, a more dangerous form of radiation, were detected in the paint or elsewhere, he added.
It was initially feared that low levels of radiation had escaped and made contact with some 100 rifles and machine guns that were being stored there for a number of years and used for training purposes.
However, after 96 hours of testing, that was determined not to be the case, Buccino said, adding that testing will continue.
The bunker, Building B11507 near the installation's Biggs Army Airfield, was always off-limits to the general public, he said.
Just to be on the safe side, Buccino said, the water in the water table and in the water supply on post and in nearby El Paso was also tested for contamination, the latter by the city's water utility company.
All of the water was found to be safe, he said, and that "should put the community at ease."
Testing of the bunker, below the ground and the nearby area is being conducted by scientists from the Army Environmental Command and Army Public Health Command.
The entire investigation is being done in a thorough and methodical manner and will probably be concluded within a few weeks or a few months, Buccino 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," he said.
The area is considered safe enough that a media tour of the area was conducted July 19, following the press conference. Media were allowed to see inside the bunker. They were not, however, allowed inside the bunker so as not to inadvertently disturb the paint, he said.
ORIGINS OF THOSE PARTICLES
The investigation of the bunker began July 12, 2013, soon after a retired Airman brought his concerns to the Air Force Safety Office, Buccino said. The Airman had feared an expansion of family housing to the area around Biggs Airfield. His identity has been withheld for reasons of privacy.
During an earlier press conference July 16, Buccino said that no expansion of family housing was ever considered for that area.
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 no indication that the Airman, now in his 70s, or anyone else has experienced any adverse health issues as a result of working there, Buccino said.
"We took (the Airman's) concerns very seriously," he said.
At the July 16 press conference, Buccino announced that anyone who thinks they may have been exposed to radiation or has additional information about the bunker should call in at (915) 744-1255, (915) 744-1962, (915) 744-8263 or (915) 744-8264.
Those phone lines continue to be staffed around the clock and so far, about 100 individuals have called, he said. Of those, about 21 Air Force veterans said they'd worked in the bunker and nearby bunkers in the 1950s and 1960s and 12 actually cleaned and maintained the weapons, used towels or other material to wipe off those weapons and were involved in burying the contaminants in the sealed containers.
All gave detailed descriptions of what they did and what went on in the area and all their stories seemed to basically agree and were very helpful, Buccino said. One veteran even walked the ground with the investigators.
As to the type of nuclear residue in the paint and sealed containers, investigators suspect it to be uranium, but conclusive results are not yet available, said Col. John Cuellar, health physicist from Army Public Health Command who was with Buccino at the July 19 press conference and who is also involved in the investigation.
Cuellar pointed out that it would be inaccurate to say there is no radiation at the site because "radiation occurs naturally in the environment and is everywhere." Rather, he said, it is safe to say at this time that radiation levels there are well within what is considered to be "safe."
Buccino said the Army will continue to be open and transparent as the investigation proceeds and will announce new findings as they occur.