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Posted 5/1/2013

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By Nancy J. Sticht

It was a message that no one in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Defense Environmental Restoration Program for Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) ever wants to receive – a report that a young girl, while visiting the island of Culebra, Puerto Rico with her family March 21, found and handled unexploded ordnance on Flamenco Beach, a popular tourist destination. Not realizing what the object was, she reportedly carried it into town, playing with it until she dropped it near the ferry dock, where it broke open. According to reports, the materials from inside the object burned the girl. After declining immediate medical treatment on Culebra, she and her family boarded the ferry to return to Fajardo, Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, there is no further information about the girl’s identity or condition. Due to safety considerations for responders, the object was not positively identified prior to being destroyed by explosives experts.

“When I received the message about the accident, I started calling people on the island as well as the community members of the project Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) to get more information,” said Tom Freeman, project manager. “My first concern was for the child and her family – this is exactly the type of situation we want to avoid and why we promote the 3R safety message at every opportunity.”  Freeman said at the April 9 RAB meeting, which was scheduled prior to the incident, that it was frustrating to be unable to find out exactly what had happened and how badly the girl was injured.

As additional details about the incident came together, it became apparent that the girl had encountered the munitions item on the Northwest Peninsula, an area of Culebra where the Corps is specifically prohibited from remediating any hazards as a condition of the property transfer from the Department of Defense to the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.   

The potential for encountering military munitions on Culebra and in the surrounding waters is high, and the Corps consistently informs the community about that possibility while promoting safety precautions. Between 1901 and 1975, the U.S. Navy used Culebra and adjacent islands and cays for aerial bombing, maneuvers, artillery firing and amphibious training. The U.S. Marines held advanced base defense exercises on the island and trained new pilots on seaplanes in Culebra harbor.  Reportedly more than a million ordnance items were dropped or fired at Culebra during training operations.  All ordnance use on Culebra ended in 1975. The Corps has investigations under way for all portions of Culebra eligible for the FUDS program. 

With a program that covers Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, Jacksonville District has the fourth largest inventory of FUDS projects in the nation.  “We currently have about 230 projects in Florida and Puerto Rico, and more than one third are active, with a study or remediation in progress,” said John Keiser, FUDS program manager.

All munitions should be considered dangerous, regardless of their age, condition or location and should never be touched, moved or disturbed. “Disturbingly, we often hear reports about people finding and handling artifacts, sometimes keeping them as souvenirs, completely unaware of the hidden danger in their hands or their homes,” said Keiser.

“Public health and safety is our highest priority. Learning and following the 3Rs of explosives safety is the best way to ensure safety,” Freeman said.  “If a suspicious item is found, RECOGNIZE that it may be munitions, and that munitions are dangerous; RETREAT without touching or moving the item, noting its location; and REPORT the finding to local law enforcement by dialing 9-1-1 or, in the case of Puerto Rico, dialing 787-742-3501.”

corps culebra explosives formerly used defense program FUDS Jacksonville District munitions puerto rico safety U.S. Army Corps of Engineers u.s. navy USACE