Cold War lab equipment found at Gerstle dump

Posted: Tuesday, August 05, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) Lab equipment used during the United States' chemical warfare testing has been unearthed by contractors working at an abandoned Gerstle River dump southeast of Delta Junction.

Among the finds are 40-year-old test tube racks, litmus paper holders and other debris from the military's top secret exercises during the Cold War.

''It was almost like going back into time'' said David Westerman, an environmental engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

From 1962 to 1967, the Army dispersed sarin and VX gas near the Gerstle River. The object was to test what effect deadly nerve agents had on military clothing and vehicles in arctic conditions.

To clean up the remnants of those experiments, the Corps hired contractor Paug-Vik Development Corp. to excavate the dump, which is located 20 miles southeast of Delta Junction, off the Alaska Highway.

It was the last of five dumps from the testing era to be examined. The site was excavated in late July.

The lab equipment was harmless as it was decontaminated after every use, according to a former officer who worked on the testing and has since been hired by the Corps to monitor the clean up, Westerman said.

The Corps' contractor uncovered 20 crushed 55-gallon drums that may have been the source of a trichloroethene spill, Westerman said. Most if not all the contaminated soil was removed. Soil test results that will confirm all the contamination has been removed will be ready in a couple of weeks, he said.

Soil from one part of the excavation had a peculiar smell to it that couldn't readily be identified, Westerman told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. A full range of tests will be conducted to identify the source of the smell, he said.

''(It) smelled just like carb cleaner or parts cleaner,'' he said.

The contractor also uncovered items from a field mess hall and the motor pool, as well as some spent smoke grenades and Howitzer shells, Westerman said. An old car likely used in sighting practice also was unearthed.

Among the artifacts was a 40-year-old, intact bottle of Old Spice after-shave that still had a few drops left, he said.

''We pulled off the stopper and it still smelled like it did 40 years ago,'' Westerman said.

Most of the recovered debris went to the Delta Junction landfill and the Corps sent a letter to Delta's City Council listing every item, he said. The spent shells, smoke grenades and the like were sent to Fort Wainwright munitions and ordnance dump.

State officials expressed relief that nerve gas from the test era had not been found.

''We now know there is not a horrible source sitting there,'' said Robert Layne, a land manager with the Department of Natural Resources. Layne had disagreed with the Corps that mostly household waste would be found and that testing equipment would be discovered.

Greg Light, a military environmental specialist with the Department of Environmental Conservation, praised the cleanup effort.

''It looked to me they did a pretty thorough job,'' Light said.

Soil test results will tell the final story, both said. A public report will be released in January.

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