Fires down below

Hingham park’s ‘burning grounds’ still carry taint of old munitions

By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / July 17, 2011

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HINGHAM - Thirty-five years ago, visitors to Wompatuck State Park could still find open munitions storage bunkers and rusting barrels of toxic materials - remnants from a period when the military used the site to store ammunition and assemble explosives. According to the park’s historians, the Navy also tested missile parts there in the early years of the Cold War and experimented with rocket fuels.

Today the park’s munitions storage history survives in events such as the “Landmine Classic’’ bike race, which passes through an area once thought to have the explosive devices.

“We said if you rode the race, you had a blast,’’ Bill Boles, president of the Friends of Wompatuck, said of the fund-raising event. “But if you wandered off the trail, you might have a blast of another kind.’’

Now a federal project to clean up the “burning grounds’’ at Wompatuck is expected to conclude a decades-long effort by the Army Corps of Engineers to resolve all the park’s contamination issues dating to its history as an ammunition storage and weapons development site.

Begun three years ago, the project to study and propose solutions for the contaminated area, about one to two acres, where the military disposed of old munitions and weapons materials during and after World War II, raises hope that all of the parkland property acquired by the state more than 40 years ago will finally be open to the public.

“One would hope this [the project] is coming to the end of a very long process,’’ Boles said.

Corps officials are studying a report received in May on the project’s analysis of the contamination and a range of proposed solutions, which range from removing contaminated soil to simply posting warning signs and taking down the wire fence that bars people from the site, not far from the park’s campground.

Located within the boundaries of four towns - Cohasset, Hingham, Norwell, and Scituate - Wompatuck State Park was once part of the Hingham Naval Ammunition Depot Annex, used from 1941 until 1965. The nearly 3,600-acre park contains more than 110 now-filled storage bunkers, including - according to the site’s historians - one that housed parts of the Navy’s first nuclear depth charge.

Acquired by the state in 1967, the park offers some 40 miles of wooded mountain bike and hiking trails, 12 miles of paved bicycle trails, more than 250 campsites, and open water for boating and fishing.

Cleaning up contamination resulting from ammunition and fuel storage and disposal has been a long story for the park, Boles said.

The site’s concrete munitions storage bunkers, some designed with loading docks, were filled and closed by the Corps. But before they were capped, youngsters would climb inside to hang out, play music, and sing.

“They’d use them as echo chambers,’’ recalled Friends member Steve Cobble of Quincy.

A large bunker with a loading dock off Union Street, known as N-9, was recently restored by three Eagle Scouts to preserve a piece of munitions history.

Federal engineers also discovered the “land mine area’’ of suspected unexploded ordnance buried near a bike trail, Boles said. The Corps fenced off and thoroughly examined several acres before pronouncing it safe. The episode led the 100-member Friends group to christen their annual bike race fund-raiser the Landmine Classic.

While those sites have been judged safe for peacetime uses, the park’s burning grounds still feel the fires of war. Project manager Carol Ann Charette said that after munitions and diesel fuel were burned and disposed of, the residue was buried in spots that were then bulldozed, spreading some contaminants over an area of several acres.

The materials disposed of consist of small arms ammunition, machine gun bullets, flares, incendiaries, irritants (gases), and grenades, Charette said.

Eight to 10 acres were examined and then narrowed to the smaller, currently fenced-off site.

“We’re looking to complete the remedial investigation for the site,’’ Charette said. Samples from the grounds will determine whether excavation is required.

A risk assessment will determine how much remediation is needed. A low risk may warrant “limited use controls’’ - trails could go through the area, but no digging would be permitted, and signs would be posted to warn the general public not to disturb the soil. If the risk to public health is higher, remediation could consist of removing contaminated soil or capping the ground. That could range from a minimal cost to hundreds of thousands of dollars, she said

“While we remain anxious to restore full use of that land, we want to continue to work with the Army Corps to ensure an environment that is safe to the public,’’ said Reginald Zimmerman, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation, which manages the park.

But the conclusion of the burning grounds decontamination project will not by itself open the whole park to the public, the Friends say. Before that can happen, another restricted area no longer in federal hands must be restored to public use.

Located at the northern end of the park, the 200-acre closed area includes a few contaminated buildings where munitions such as torpedoes were assembled for shipping to a Navy depot at what is now Bare Cove Park in Hingham. The Friends say the state promised years ago to clean up or secure those buildings so the public can make use of a new bike trail.

When the state restored the Greenbush line, local mitigation for building a new Cohasset station included constructing a “rail trail’’ from the station through the Whitney Thayer Woods to Wompatuck. But the new rail trail is “a trail to nowhere,’’ the Friends say, because it is blocked by the wire fence around the closed area.

“You can come from Boston on the train and use the trail - until you get to the border of Wompatuck and there’s a big fence,’’ Boles said. “It should be open. People should be using it.’’

The easiest and cheapest thing to do is to board up the asbestos-contaminated buildings and put up warning signs, Boles said.

Conservation and recreation officials, however, said the deteriorating military buildings pose “significant safety concerns to the public. At this time, the agency is reviewing these concerns and is also exploring possible alternatives that would establish recreational access while being cost-effective,’’ Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said his department is unable to say when the closed area will be opened. “Our main concern is public safety,’’ he said.

Both park users and officials look forward to a time when the burning grounds will be declared safe and the closed area will be open. Park supervisor Steve Gammon, who has overseen the site since the 1970s, said, “We would like to see the whole park opened.’’

Robert Knox can be reached at

3,526 acres, 262 wooded campsites, 12 miles of paved bicycle trails. 1665 Chief Josiah Wompatuck deeded the land to settlers. 1941 Navy acquired the land for an ammunition depot. 110+ underground bunkers stored munitions. 100,000 Approximate number of people visiting the park each year

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