On tranquil Nantucket, a new worry about what’s under the sand
Is there anything quite like summer on Nantucket?
The buttery breezes. The calming crash of surf on sand. The undetonated World War II-era bombs lurking just beneath the soil.
That’s the warning, anyway, being handed down by the US Army Corps of Engineers to a few hundred island residents, who were surprised to receive letters recently alerting them not only that their property might contain buried, decades-old military munitions, but that said weaponry “may pose an explosive hazard to you, your family, other property users, or the public.”
Since the letters’ arrival last month, those inhabiting the tranquil swath of land on the island’s southwestern edge have responded mostly with confusion.
“It’s one of those things that makes you go ‘hmm,’ ” says Bill Grieder, a longtime Nantucket resident and president of the Madaket Conservation Association.
The letter from the Army Corps, dated June 8 and sent to 280 households in the island’s Madaket area, says:
“Available information indicates military munitions may be present on or near your property as a result of past munitions-related activities that Department of Defense conducted on this Formerly Used Defense Sites property.”
It included a map of the potentially affected area — both publicly and privately owned land — along with instructions about what to do in the event that an aging piece of weaponry is found, which it sums up with the Army’s pithy “Three Rs”: Recognize, retreat, and report.
As good a strategy for live explosives as that may be, it turns out the urgency in Madaket is at least 30 years old.
Carol Charette, a project manager for the Army Corps, said the letter was triggered by a long chain of events that began in 1990, when a resident of the area discovered a rocket — a variety fired from planes during World War II.
Vintage WWII detritus is not unheard of on the island, which was used in the mid-1940s as an air-to-ground rocket range by air crews training at Rhode Island’s Quonset Point Naval Air Station. Tom Nevers, an area on Nantucket’s southeastern edge and the former home to a Navy aerial bombing range, is currently under long-term monitoring by the Corps of Engineers. And on neighboring Martha’s Vineyard, two sites are undergoing $10 million projects to clean up what the military left behind, according to the Army Corps.
Until then, however, none had been found in the area of Madaket.
Local authorities were alerted, the rocket removed, and a report generated — and seemingly forgotten until 1994, when the report was unearthed and put in a file. It surfaced again in 2008, as the Corps of Engineers plodded through a massive review of old training sites around the country, searching for evidence of contaminants and other remaining dangers.
Still, residents weren’t alerted. For one thing, Army policy at the time did not require that they be informed. For another, the group working on the review of former training sites was swamped with work, the project being low in the Army’s list of priorities.
So even when the policy changed in 2013, five more years went by before a letter was composed and mailed. It sent a few tremors through sleepy Madaket when it finally arrived.
“It’s sort of shocking,” said one Madaket resident who spoke on the condition his name not be published, because he did not want the public to know where he lives. “It’s shocking after 35 years of digging and planting gardens.”
Nantucket town manager Elizabeth Gibson, paraphrasing the letter, said: “ ‘There might be bombs on your property.’ Yeah, I would be concerned about that.”
Residents have been asked by the Army Corps to share the information about the possibility of lurking danger with anyone using the property — including those renting or leasing — raising the specter of whether the letter could at least temporarily lower property values.
Michael Parker, a director in the real estate department at the Boston legal firm Rackemann, Sawyer & Brewster and a former member of the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement office, said that property owners would likely be required by law to disclose the contents of the recent letter in any impending property transaction.
“Until the extent and nature of the [unexploded ordnance] is determined,” Parker says, “it seems there’d be some stigma attached to those properties.”
Unfortunately for property owners, resolution to the issue might be slow going.
Eventually, the Army Corps will get around to what it calls a “remedial investigation” that could include a sweep with metal detectors and controlled detonation of any unearthed ordnance.
But at the moment, Charette said, the project is low on the department’s to-do list.
“It doesn’t have a relative risk that’s very high,” she said. “So it’s not necessarily going to be investigated in the short term.”
In the meantime, because there’s little choice, residents are choosing to simply carry on.
As Chris Emery, a longtime Madaket resident, puts it, all the mowing and controlled burning done on that part of the island over the years, not to mention all the walking, biking, and dog-walking, would have probably turned up anything dangerous.
And while the prospect of a summer spent atop an aged cache of explosives could be understandably unnerving, it’s far from enough to spoil his summer.
“If this was the most important thing we had to talk about,” Emery said, “that would be great.”