FORT BLISS, Texas (AP) — After radiation was found in a Cold War-era bunker on Fort Bliss, military leaders Thursday hoped that tips that could unveil other contaminated sites on the sprawling West Texas Army post.
Maj. Joe Buccino said about 60 people have called since a hotline was established this week, and officials are trying to determine the accuracy of calls from people who worked at the post in the 1950s and 1960s.
Officials announced Tuesday that low levels of radiation were detected as part of an investigation that began two months ago, spurred by a veteran's concern that buried sealed containers with radioactive residues might be a danger if the sprawling base continued to grow and houses were built in what now is a barren stretch of desert.
Fort Bliss officials discovered the bunker — and the light weapons stored there — had become radioactive. Further investigation showed the bunker had been used to assemble and store nuclear bombs in the 1950s and 60s. The Air Force applied an epoxy paint to seal off the radiation and turned over the installation the Army in 1966. In 2003, when the Army started using the bunker to store weapons for training soldiers that would be deployed, the paint started to chip, releasing the radiation.
Buccino explained that experts from the Army Environmental Command will focus on determining the amount and type of radiation within the bunker in order to assess the risk and develop a containment strategy. Then, they'll use a ground-penetrating radar to try to locate the buried containers and will also rely on any information people that used to work in the bunker might offer.
El Paso Times reported Thursday that some of the people who called the hotline said they didn't know the bunker was radioactive.
Vivian Thomas, who would spend an entire day doing inventory inside the bunker two or three times each month, said she was not surprised by the contamination news.
"I wasn't really that surprise because it's an old bunker ... It's rather large and it has a safe inside," she said.
The 71-year-old Efrain Zamora told the newspaper that he worked there for several years until he retired last year.
"We had no idea we were working in a hazardous environment," Zamora said. His job was to sweep the bunker before it would be used to load and unload weapons. He thinks he spent about three hours inside the bunker each week for a half-year.
He told the newspaper that someone from the Army said they'd contact him in a day or two. He says he'll give them a week and, if no one calls, he'll go to a doctor. He's "just waiting to see what they tell me ... I don't have any idea what their plan is."
As for the buried sealed canisters containing radioactive rags and other utensils used to wipe and handle the nuclear bombs, Buccino says they don't know where they are or if they exist at all. Burying sealed containers about a foot-and-a-half below the ground was standard procedure to dispose of radioactive materials at the time, he said.