EL PASO, TX (KTSM) — At a press conference Tuesday morning, officials from Fort Bliss announced the Army Environmental Command found traces of radioactive material on post. [updated]
While it sounds alarming, officials say the general public is not in any immediate danger.
"At this time, we do not assess any risk to the general public, but it is early in the investigation," said Major Joe Buccino, spokesperson for Fort Bliss.
According to Fort Bliss, in the 1950s, when the U.S. Air Force had control of Biggs Army Airfield, personnel used the facility for building and maintaining nuclear weapons.
But what officials may not have expected back then is for radioactive residue to remain in the area more than half a century later.
Two months ago, a retired airman, now said to be living in Florida, saw a story on the news about Fort Bliss expanding its post.
The airman, who once worked at Biggs Airfield between 1953 to 1956, was concerned that Fort Bliss would build housing for families on land he believed may have been contaminated by radioactive material.
He called the Air Force, to report that one of the bunkers, storage building #11507, was once used to store and handle nuclear weapons.
After an initial inspection of the building, the Army Environmental Command discovered residue of what appears to be uranium, on equipment, like rifles and machine guns, used by soldiers for training. Alpha and beta rays were found in and near the bunker. Gamma rays, which are the most harmful, were not found.
Health experts say unless the chemicals are ingested in large amounts for a long period of time, they're not going to pose serious health risks.
"The levels are so low that they do not present a health risk to anyone that has been handling those weapons," said Major Buccino.
Fort Bliss says the Airforce had painted the bunker with an epoxy paint in order to trap the chemicals from coming into contact with people.
But, over the years, the paint chipped, and the radioactive material has since left residue on some 100 weapons in that building.
Officials say personnel enters that bunker about once a month to pick up and drop off equipment.
"We are, quite frankly, unable to assess the level of risk," said Major Buccino.
The retired airman, whose identity is unknown, also reported that radioactive material was buried about 12 to 18 inches underground, in sealed containers somewhere near the contaminated bunker.
As of now, Fort Bliss has not found these alleged containers.
"Of course, it's concerning because we don't know the scope of the issue. We don't know, again, if it's nothing or fairly substantial. We don't know that," said Mr. Mark Cauthers, Fort Bliss' Deputy to the Garrison Commander.
Officials say they don't know how many people have come into contact with the weapons in the bunker over the years, or whether or not the level of chemicals is enough to cause any harm.
The U.S. Air Force Safety Center, the Public Health Command, and the Army Environmental Command, among other military organizations, are investigating the case.
Activity in and around the bunker complex believed to be contaminated has been suspended, and the area has been closed off.
Fort Bliss says as far as they know, there are no records of the hazardous materials handled and stored on post.
Fort Bliss officials have set up a 24-hour call center for those who think they might have been exposed to contaminated materials.
The hotline numbers are (915) 744-1255, (915) 744-1962, (915) 744-8263, (915) 744-8264.
Update: Fort Bliss radioactive leakage
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