By Andrew Revelos
After years of careful planning, a section of abandoned buildings in the restricted area of Naval Support Facility (NSF) Indian Head known as the Condenser Houses is finally being remediated under the supervision of the installation Environmental Department. Building 453 and its close neighbors, Buildings 930, 931, 932 and 933 were constructed during the boom years of World War II as part of the installation’s massive expansion.
“[Building] 453 was one of four new solvent recovery houses built in 1941 as part of the expansion of the Indian Head Powder Factory in support of the U.S. entry into WWII,” said Tommy Wright, natural resources specialist. “Once the powder grains were extruded, they were sent to solvent recovery houses where ether and alcohol vapors were condensed and sent back to the ether house via a gravity feed. This process took approximately four days, after which the grains were sent to the dry house for approximately three months, depending on size of grain.”
That process, conceived at a time when national security concerns were grave and knowledge of environmental impacts was limited, resulted in ether crystallizing in some of the facilities’ structure. Other forms of explosives contamination is also present at the site in addition to non-explosive contaminants, making remediation a very serious matter indeed.
When the Navy stopped using the facilities by the 1970s, a complex remediation was cost prohibitive. The site quickly fell into a state of disrepair, overgrown with vines and trees, with roofs collapsing. One potential, if drastic solution on the table would have involved clearing base personnel to a safe standoff distance and conducted a controlled burn of the facilities.
Thankfully, that disruptive and dangerous last resort was not needed. Instead, environmental specialists will carefully advance into the site and use a liquid decontaminant to treat the affected areas, taking the structure down piece by piece.
“The structural integrity of the building has prevented anyone from entering any of the bays of 453 or 930-933,” said Andrew Louder, installation restoration program manager. “To enter, we will be removing each bay wall and having a structural engineer make sure that they are safe to enter. Also, the buildings history of handing explosives and explosive residues will require thorough inspection and potential decontamination. If any of the contents of any bay cannot be 100 percent inspected, then there is the potential to have use remote equipment to gain access to the suspect contents.”
Because environmental specialists are still investigating every area of concern, the process is methodical. As contamination is discovered, it is remediated, removed to its proper waste stream and disposed of offsite.
Work is expected to conclude in April. In addition to the environmental and safety benefits, the remediated area will be available for redevelopment. “The environmental benefits include the removal of the overall hazard and liability it presents to the Navy,” said Louder. “There is potential that after demo, the building area can be reused.”