FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Workers clearing the ground for a new missile defense system at Fort Greely this week unearthed a cache of rusty, World War II-era barrels that could hold remnants of chemical weapons.
Some barrel lids from the 1940s military dump read ''US CWS'' -- the abbreviation for the United States Chemical Warfare Service, the U.S. Army chemical and biological combat agency inactivated in 1946.
Army officials said they don't know what's in the more than 20 barrels. Some barrels yawn open, revealing frozen crystallized contents. Others are so riddled with holes that they're empty.
Three of the contract workers who discovered the barrels reported skin irritations Thursday, according to Chuck Canterbury, an Army spokesman at Fort Richardson.
One was treated and released with ''six red dots'' at the hospital on Fort Wainwright, Canterbury said. Two others were examined at Fort Greely, one suffering from a rash covering his chest, the other with tiny red bumps around his waist and neck.
On Thursday, hazardous materials crews in protective breathing apparatus combed the site.
''We're taking it as a worst-case scenario because we don't know what's in there,'' Canterbury said. ''Maybe it's oatmeal in there. But then again it could be something serious.''
For years, Fort Greely served as an experimental chemical and biological weapons testing site.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the Army conducted secret tests of weapons, including nerve gas, mustard gas and tularemia, a bacterial disease known as rabbit fever.
In the mid-1960s, hundreds of rockets carrying poison gas sank into Greely's Blueberry Lake after the Army stored them on the frozen surface but didn't remove them by spring. They were recovered years later.
An Alaska National Guard hazardous materials team and an Anchorage contractor are processing soil samples at a mobile lab on site to find out what the barrels contain, said Ed Meggert, state on-scene coordinator with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
The appearance of the dump didn't surprise environmental activists.
There's no telling what work crews will find at Fort Greely because military records of disposal of toxins is so poor, said Pam Miller, director of the group Alaska Community Action on Toxics.
''It's completely irresponsible of the military to go forth with the National Missile Defense until a comprehensive study is done to find where this hazardous stuff is buried,'' Miller said.
She said work should be suspended until classified documents are released pinpointing known sites and qualified people can test for unknown substances to prevent accidents as a result of new excavation.
''The workers on site are not trained to handle these kind of situations,'' Miller said.
Canterbury admits there's a possibility that more contaminated areas will be excavated as work continues on Fort Greely, but said the only other way to detect unknown areas would be an exhausting task.
A generation ago, chemicals and garbage were disposed of by simply digging a hole and covering the trash with dirt.
''That's the way everybody did things back then,'' Canterbury said. ''Generations change and ''You forget what's buried where and someone backs into it with a backhoe.''
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