TULALIP – Sixty years after chemical weapons training was conducted on the Tulalip Reservation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is circling back to make sure soldiers didn’t leave anything toxic behind.
They are using clues from an old photograph that warns “Danger. Poison gas” and decades-old memories to hunt for vintage chemical weapons.
Crews from a company under contract with the federal government began investigating the site last month, Corps spokesman Steve Cosgrove said.
They’ve cleared brush from the heavily wooded site just west of Quil Ceda Village and used ground-penetrating radar to search for unusual material.
“They’ve located a few things that are not natural, and we don’t know what those are,” Cosgrove said. “They’re going to go out there and check to see if there is any relation to munitions that may have been left there since World War II.”
The anomalies – more than 60 have been identified – could be anything from discarded logging equipment to actual weaponry.
Tribal officials don’t expect any major stores of ammunition to be found.
“Worst-case scenario is that we’ll find a little mustard gas,” said Foley Cleveland, an employee of the tribes’ Special Projects department. “It probably won’t be anything.”
Crews expect to be finished with the cleanup by the end of the month. They work wearing biohazard suits and under the constant watch of emergency medical teams, just in case they come across an unexpected weapons store.
Tents that can be used for decontamination are nearby.
Mustard gas, tear gas, hydrogen cyanide and other materials were stored and used in training exercises at the site, according to the Corps.
During World War II, The federal government claimed 2,175 acres of Tulalip lands for its own use.
Ammunition, including chemical and conventional materials, was stored on a 676-acre section, according to federal documents. The rest of the land was used for training, including drills involving chemical warfare.
The site was known as a Backup Ammunition Storage Depot until 1947, when it was decommissioned. It was later used for storage and training.
Boeing leased the land for use as a testing center between 1959 and 2000. The company didn’t use the dozens of abandoned army bunkers, Boeing historian Mike Lombardi said.
The Tulalip Tribes has been working with the federal government to make sure the area is clean, Cleveland said.
Tribal leaders hope to develop part of the site and restore the rest to wetlands.
The depot is one of 91 sites nationwide identified as areas with possible chemical weapons stores, said David Hurtle, site safety and health officer with Parsons, the company contracted by the federal government to do the clean-up.
Suspicions about the Tulalip site were raised when a historic photograph surfaced several years ago, Cleveland said. The photograph shows a soldier, crouching near a weapons cache, holding a sign warning of danger from poison gas.
“Do not dig for one year from the date below: May 18, 1946,” the sign reads.
As part of their search for clues about what may be buried on the reservation, federal officials sought out retired military personnel.
“Unfortunately, the lieutenant who would have known what happened here died five years ago,” Cleveland said.
What’s left are hazy memories of events generations ago, Hurtle said. The only way to find out what’s there is to dig.
The Corps began investigating the site about six weeks ago. Crews found dozens of unusual deposits under about 10 acres of the site.
An investigation the Corps conducted between 1994 and 1997 concluded chemical and conventional weapons had been stored at the site.
“That’s frequently the case at old ammunitions sites,” Cosgrove said. “Often, there are things that were left over.”
The U.S. government frequently located weapons depots and training grounds on or near reservations, said Gregory Hooks, a sociologist at Washington State University. In 2004, Hooks released a report on the old weapons sites in the American Sociological Review.
“They wanted places where they could operate chemical weapons with some secrecy and not next to large population centers,” Hooks said. “They wanted a bunch of land and Native Americans didn’t count.”
Open-air training was conducted with mustard gas and other chemicals on many reservations, Hooks said. Counties with reservation land in them are more likely to have traces of chemicals and dangerous weapons left over from that era.
Quil Ceda Village manager John McCoy said tribal members at times hunted on the former military site.
Tulalip tribal leaders are among many American Indians around the country who are working to rid their land of chemical weapons, McCoy said.