South Huntsville Civic Association

Redstone Arsenal CleanUp

Redstone Arsenal Clean-Up of Chemical Weapons Disposal Sites

The SHCA Board of Directors recently met with Ms. Terry de la Paz and Mr. Jason Watson, (Installation Restoration Program,) and Mr. John Lewis Jr., to gain a better understanding of the cleanup process and potential risks associated with chemical weapons disposal sites on Redstone Arsenal.  We appreciate Ms. Terri Stover’s assistance arranging this meeting.

We wanted to learn more after the March 21, 2014 publication of an article by David Zucchino, of the Los Angeles(LA) Times. 

The photograph to the left was featured in the LA Times article with the caption “Drums believed to contain chemical weapons residue were dumped in World War II-era trenches that stretch for six miles at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama . . .”

On March 22nd, the Huntsville Times published a short article confirming the LA Times’ facts were correct. This article was introduced by a far less alarming photograph (right) and appeared to be a Public Relations band aid. Further investigation was needed to explain this issue of health and safety to the citizens of Huntsville.

Our objective was to understand the history of chemical weapons at Redstone Arsenal, how and why the contaminated materials were buried, the plans for site “cleanup,” and most importantly to gauge the risk to our community.

SHCA Board Members were impressed with the dedicated and knowledgeable team of professionals that are in the early stages of a 25 Year, $1.4 Billion plan to clean up the total of 405 sites on the arsenal (with 17 sites having the potential to contain possible WWII-era chemical agent-filled munitions).  We believe that every precaution is being taken to address potential ground water and air pollution issues. 

The cleanup of these 405 sites is being managed under the “2010 Hazardous Waste Facility Permit” issued by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.  Authorization and funding is covered under the Federal “Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) with the State of Alabama. The nature of the 405 sites include:

-          Disposal Areas:  Chemical Disposal, Landfills, etc

-          Manufacturing: Industrial Waste Discharge, etc                                                                   

-          Munitions and Explosives of Concern (MEC) disposal

-          Sewage:  Discharge ditches, oil/water separators, etc

-          Storage:  Open wast water, hazardous waste, etc

Arsenal “Chemical History” Facts

1.  Beginning in 1941, the War Department purchased property and manufactured Chemical Agents at the “Huntsville Arsenal.” These chemical agents included included Mustard Gas, Lewisite, White Phosphorus, Chlorine, Phosgene, and Adamsite.

2.  Chemical Munitions were produced at the “Redstone Arsenal.”

3. The “Gulf Chemical Warfare Depot” was used for storage, shipping, and receiving of raw materials and finished chemical ordinance. Toxic Gas storage included Bulk mustard and lewisite storage as well as finished munitions in earth covered “Igloos”.  At the end of the war, Demilitarization and Disposal Operations were conducted in this area. 

4. Following WWII, chemical agent-filled ordinance that originated in the U.S., Great Britain, Germany and Japan was brought to Redstone Arsenal for disposal. The initial shipment consisted of 178 rail cars (approximately one million munitions.)

5.  Some of the demilitarized (explosive components removed) ordinance was ultimately placed in a series of six miles of trenches. This material also included refuse from dismantling chemical production plants and foreign munitions that were drained of chemicals.  Seventeen (17) sites currently have the potential to contain possible WWII-era chemical agent-filled munitions.

6. Because of the obvious human health exposures, the arsenal prevents the use of groundwater underneath Redstone for consumption, has fencing and signage to prevent access to the sites by unauthorized personnel and active security measures to prevent unauthorized intrusive activities. 

7.  Practices for Disposal of Ordinance in the 1940’s at DOD facilities included:

- Removal of explosive components (Burster tubes)

- Drainage of Chemical Agent into 55 gallon drums and “ton” containers for shipment to other installations for burning or neutralization.

- Remaining contaminated “bomb bodies” were burned and buried in trenches

- Burial trenches were in remote swampy areas of the arsenal and received “restricted access” controls.

- Items that were too unstable to drain/burn/bury, were explosively detonated inside a trench prior to burial.


The cleanup of the chemical disposal sites, being managed under the “2010 Hazardous Waste Facility Permit”, is an elaborate “Environmental Investigation Approach” with multiple, investigative phases that will culminate in the actual execution of the cleanup effort.  The team is supported by multiple DOD agencies and the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. 

Before new cleanup is initiated, an extensive series of detailed plans, applications, approvals and permitting must be completed.

Of particular interest to SHCA was the safety measures associated with chemical and contaminated material destruction. Warfare chemical burning and “Explosive Destruction System (EDS)” are the two common methods of destruction associated with “Recovered Chemical Warfare Materials (RCWM)” found in the trenches. The EDS is used if a chemical munition such as a mortar or artillery shell is found to still have chemical warfare materials still inside. The process involves using a sealed stainless steel vessel, where a cutting “shaped” charge is used to access the chemical munitions and the chemical is deactivated as dry chlorine powder is mixed with the chemical in the sealed container.  In this way the chemical weapon will be deactivated and decontaminated in a safe and controlled environment.  

Prior to the use of these EDS systems,  detailed safety measures  for explosives and chemical agents such as agent air monitoring plan, chemical agent sampling procedures and the chemical storage site plan are required.

Another disposal technique we asked about was warfare chemical burning.  This disposal technique would be similar to those techniques and facilities used successfully at the Anniston Army Depot to dispose of rockets that had been filled with sarin nerve agent. They also incinerated about 2,200 tons of sarin, VX and mustard agents that had been stored at the Anniston Depot. 


Over 60 wells are sampled every year for groundwater contamination.  Traces of the chemical manufacturing process residue have been detected in close proximity to where the materials were buried, but no groundwater migration of chemical products has been observed. 

In other words, the burial of these materials after WWII was in fact an effective “temporary” storage solution for chemical warfare materials, but has left many parts of the arsenal contaminated. Over six miles of trenches were dug to bury these materials.  Many other disposal and dump sites have been identified.   The Garrison-Redstone team will be using Magnetometers and other Electromagnetic detection equipment to specifically locate buried metals and other “subsurface anomalies”. These buried materials will be “mapped” with GPS coordinates to allow for future reacquisition, excavation, retrieval and safe disposal.

Many of the trenches used for burial now have large trees growing thereon.  Clearing of this vegetation without disturbing potential chemical munitions buried 3-4 feet below the surface will be challenging.  Every steel drum, bomb, mortar shell or other unearthed item must be assumed to contain a harmful chemical agent and or be potentially explosive.  The Garrison-Redstone team will use neutron beam scatter analysis equipment to characterize what chemicals (if any) are still contained inside sealed bombs or artillery shells.  Based on analysis results, each individual bomb or shell will be deactivated using approved processes for that specific material and container.   During the analysis process the unearthed item will be cataloged and stored in “Igloos” on the arsenal designated for these materials.  


The Garrison-Redstone team spent over 3 hours with SHCA Board members. First, the “Redstone Arsenal – Installation Restoration Chemical Munitions Interim Measures” presentation was reviewed, discussed and clarified.  All questions were answered in a forthright manner.  During a subsequent tour we were escorted to an area near the chemical / waste burial trenches. Next we proceeded to a quarry where contaminated materials were dumped. Finally we were taken almost to the Tennessee River and shown secure Igloos which will be used for temporary storage of chemical waste materials until approved disposal is accomplished.

Based on our observations and discussions, our level of concern regarding wide-scale health risks to the community from this unfortunate mess is low. Every precaution will be taken to insure that our air and water will be protected over the next 25+ years as the cleanup process proceeds. 



“Redstone Arsenal – Installation Restoration Chemical Munitions Interim Measures” Presentation

-         Page 1-12  LINK:

-         Pages 13-25 LINK:

 2.  UXO Site selected:  REDSTONE ARSENAL, AL  (Unexploded Ordinance Info)

3. LA Times Article: Deadly Chemical Weapons, Buried and Lost, Lurk Under U.S. Soil

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