Old missile sites still get attention

TOPEKA — Though the weapons have long since been removed, Cold War-era missile sites in Kansas still draw careful attention from the Army Corps of Engineers.

One is on the grounds of a school near Holton.

A chemical agent called trichloroethylene (TCE) was used as a degreasing agent to clean fuel lines so the missiles could fire on cue. Workers didn't think twice about dumping the chemical on site, but it has since been found to be a health risk at high levels.

Kansas has 21 former Atlas missile sites and five former Nike missile sites that are part of a Defense Department program that evaluates and remediates contamination at the sites. The primary contamination is TCE in groundwater and soil. The corps is responsible for managing the program.

"We can't leave property owners with contaminations," said Natalae Tillman, chief of the section that manages the projects for the corps' Kansas City district. "They don't have the ability to clean sites up on their own."

Nine of the Atlas missile sites are within 40 miles of the former Forbes Air Force Base in Topeka. Twelve others are within 40 miles of the former Schilling Air Force Base in Salina. None is owned by the federal government.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services' Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, drinking or breathing high levels of TCE may cause nervous system effects, liver and lung damage, abnormal heartbeat, coma and possibly death.

Cleanup projects have been completed at four sites: northwest of Waverly, north of Keene, Leavenworth and Gardner.

The corps is working on four more sites: north of McPherson, southwest of Carlton, northwest of Wamego, and at Jackson Heights Junior and Senior High School near Holton.

"It's the most unique high school in the state of Kansas," said Paul Becker, superintendent of USD 335. "It has to be."

The old Atlas missile site was decommissioned in the mid-1960s like the others. The school district bought it from the federal government for $1. Ground was broken for the school in 1969. In August, the district celebrated 40 years.

The site's command center was transformed into classrooms but now is a storage area because a bond issue allowed for the addition of nine classrooms on the main level.

Kansas Department of Health and Environment officials said the concentrations of TCE in the groundwater at the site weren't extremely high, but they still could pose risks if ingested. However, the groundwater that is contaminated isn't used and is well away from the structure.

Officials said that throughout the project there has been no exposure to students. Treatment of the site began in October 2007 and now is being monitored for effectiveness.

"The concentrations in the groundwater have come down quite a bit," said Jorge Jacobs, KDHE Superfund unit manager. "They're not where we want them to be yet, but they're pretty close."

Jacobs said it is difficult to outline a timetable for completion of sites such as the Jackson Heights project because of the complexities involved, but the groundwater will be monitored for years.

To date, the corps said, $20 million has been spent in Kansas on old missile sites. It estimates the cost of the remaining work at $130 million.