Great Salt Plains under review by Army Corps of Engineers

Members of the 22nd Chemical Battalion walk through the procedure to be used as they remove vials of a chemical mixture found at the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge's crystal digging site in 2017.

SALT PLAINS NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, Okla. — Salt Plains is once again under review by Army Corps of Engineers to ensure the area, a part of which was a former military bombing range during World War II, is safe for the public.

The review encompasses the current crystal digging area as well as areas that were used for demolition bombing and practice bombing targets decades ago, according to the Corps of Engineers. The crystal digging area is closed from Oct. 16th through March 31, as the entire refuge is designated critical whooping crane habitat.

In 2007, the Salt Plains area was put under lockdown after a Boy Scout was exposed to a chemical blistering agent he unearthed in the crystal digging area on the refuge. The glass vial, full of yellow liquid, was part of a military chemical warfare identification kit that came equipped with mustard gas and other hazardous agents.

The Army Corps of Engineers kept the site closed for months as they thoroughly searched the grounds for any more decades-old ordnance.

No sites at the refuge or the adjoining Great Salt Plains State Park will be closed for the review, which is an annual assessment conducted by the Corps in cooperation with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"Regulations require we go back at least once every five years and make sure the site conditions remain the same, that nothing has been found, that educational awareness measures are still in place and working in the way they're supposed to," Suzanne Beauchamp said.

Beauchamp is a Formerly Used Defense Site (FUDS) project manager for the Corps of Engineers and helps facilitate safe operation of Salt Plains and other places where forgotten munitions might be lying around.

Before this, the most recent five-year review was completed September 2015. The current review will finish September 2020, and a report with the findings and conclusions will be made public at that time.

Following the Boy Scout incident and subsequent search operation, the Army Corps of Engineers has been confident that little danger is posed to the public. As such, Corps involvement now is largely about making sure visitors are made aware of the potential risks on site and what to do in the unlikely case they discover old military materials.

Signs in and around the area and brochures distributed to visitors are some ways to get the word out.

"We think the probability is very, very low that there is any (ordnance) left. That's why we were comfortable just using educational awareness as our remedy," Beauchamp said.

"We'll go out to the (area), we'll look at the site, make sure the signs are in place, the brochures are there. We'll talk with the Fish and Wildlife Folks about whether they've had any reports of any incidents since the last time we talked to them, and, if so, what did they do," she said, adding the Corps of Engineers is always supposed to be informed about such incidents by area authorities.

Beauchamp said nothing hazardous has been found at Salt Plains since the Corps of Engineers began looking for ordnance in 2008 after the 2007 incident.

Still, the annual five-year reviews are expected to continue for the foreseeable future, she said.

"This will be going on until the technology or the comfort level is there that we'll never find anything again," Beauchamp said. "For us, at least right now ... we want to make sure this information is out there, so if they do find something that looks a little different than they were expecting, they stop, go talk to a ranger, make sure they call 911 ... so that we don't have any accidents."

Willetts writes for the Enid News & Eagle, a CNHI News Service publication.

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Willetts is education and city reporter for the Enid News & Eagle.
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