When you think of the sun-kissed beaches of Kwajalein Atoll, you probably think of surf, sand, and hermit crabs scurrying about, or lounging in a hammock between two swaying palm trees after snorkeling the reef.
But remembering that Kwajalein was a battlefield during World War II, the beaches weren't always as picturesque as they are today.
From the end of World War II to 1964 when the U.S. Navy operated Kwajalein, the southwestern beach near the runway served as the dump, strewn with remnants of war, and other debris from burning waste and trash.
But a wave of change is here, and in a big way.
The Former U.S. Navy Dump Removal initiative, also called the Shoreline Metals Removal initiative, began on Kwajalein in August 2018 and is slated for completion September 2019.
The project is run by the Director of Public Works and is funded by the U.S. Army Environmental Command out of Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
This initiative has seen approximately 2.5 million pounds of metal (military equipment and scrap) pulled from the former dump and sent to the U.S. for recycling, said Glen Shonkwiler, environmental engineer with the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, Ala.
"The final barge in September is expected to remove another 2 million pounds of metal," he added. He said that planning documents for the project began as early as 2014 with fieldwork beginning May 2018 removing vegetation and taking down part of the hill in front of the dump area.
Short-arm excavators pull the debris off of the shoreline and load it into waiting dump trucks, Shonkwiler said. "The dump trucks take it to a staging area where we then sort it to remove the metal and larger material and then sample the material for contaminants to determine if it can be reused on-site, can be placed in the Kwajalein landfill or has to go off-site to the U.S. for disposal."
After the metal and the dump material is removed, a rock revetment is installed to protect the shoreline and the runway from erosion.
"The revetment is a process of placing large keystones into slots cut out of the reef flat and then filling behind those keystones with multiple layers of additional stone," he said. "This forms a strong base so that a back wall can be installed by laying down geotextile fabric, placing smaller bedding stone on the fabric, and then covering it with layers of larger revetment rock." The overall height will be approximately 12 feet above mean sea level, he added.
With the project occurring on the site of a former battlefield, it was inevitable that unexploded ordnance would be found.
"Last fall we found a number of UXOs ... as we were moving waste material from the dump," said Shonkwiler. "We found a 100 pound bomb, a five-inch naval shell and some smaller mortar shells."
The concern was to make sure we kept the workers safe during operations, especially hammering and other activities that could accidentally set off an explosive device, he added.
"We've armored the excavators; we've put bullet proof glass on the front windows and a steel plate covering up the front so any blast in the area they are working in would be deflected."
Another layer of safety is the ability to remotely operate the two short-arm excavators without an operator inside in high risk areas from a blast box at a distance of 100 feet away, he said.
Col. James DeOre, U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll garrison commander, praised the workers cleaning up the former U.S. Navy dump and added that "they're conscientious to ensure that the impact they have during the cleanup is minimized, and that the benefits of doing what they are doing far outweighs any other impact."
In conjunction with the debris removal from the former dump, there has also been a project to clear out the accumulation of scrap metal in the active landfill here.
"To this date, 15 million pounds of scrap metal have been loaded onto the barges heading to the U.S. for recycling," Shonkwiler said.
The active landfill is programmed to be closed, by complete removal, starting in 2022.
Not only does the project cleanup the shoreline visually, more importantly, it also provides environmental benefits.
The purpose of the project is to eliminate or decrease the potential for contaminants to migrate further into the marine environment. "With the waste debris removed, we're stopping any further impact and hope to see ecological improvements over time," said Shonkwiler.
For the Garrison, the cleanup project is a top priority.
"We must be good stewards of the environment," DeOre said. "The residents of Kwajalein are so oriented to outdoor activities and the beautiful environment that supports that lifestyle; we have to protect it."