Image of field team

Members of a CBARR field team perform an investigation of potential buried chemical agent munitions in Australia. Photo(s) courtesy CCDC Chemical Biological Center Operational Applications Directorate

CBARR Crew Manages COVID-19 Threat While Completing Chemical Material Assessment Work in Australia

CBARR Crew Manages COVID-19 Threat While Completing Chemical Material Assessment Work in Australia

By Brian B. Feeney, Ph.D.

COMBAT CAPABILITIES DEVELOPMENT COMMAND (CCDC) CHEMICAL BIOLOGICAL CENTER’S Chemical Biological Applications and Risk Reduction (CBARR) business unit travels the world performing investigation, assessment and remediation activities. At times, this includes traveling to active and former military sites that may contain suspect buried chemical warfare materials.

CBARR has been performing these missions in Australia since 2009 and is a recognized leader in performing this kind of work. In fact, the Australian Department of Defence (ADOD) maintains a list of current and former defense sites in need of CBARR investigation, and if necessary remediation, in rank order. This list is part of a broader initiative within Australia called the Wartime Remnants Clean-up Program.

Getting the Call

In December 2019, CBARR was beginning plans to investigate a site in New South Wales, Australia when a construction crew encountered magnetic anomalies while performing routine pre-construction magnetometry at an installation named Defence Establishment Orchard Hills, 50 miles west of Sydney. The installation command and construction contractor’s immediate concern was the possibility of buried chemical munitions because Orchard Hills served as a U.S. Army chemical storage depot during World War II, called Kingwood Ammunition Depot.

The delay in operations for the construction crew was costing the ADOD $20,000 a day, so it was imperative for CBARR to conduct the investigation and potential remediation as quickly as possible. At the same time, CBARR had to conduct its operations – hazards assessment, safety planning, and documentation – with the same rigor that it applies to every operation.

This operation came with another twist. When the initial call came in to reprioritize work at the Orchard Hills site, coronavirus was still only known to be present in Wuhan, China. That was about to change.

Not a Typical Mission

Multiple lines of effort had to be executed to meet the ADOD’s needs. It was important that CBARR complete the operation quickly and safely so that construction could be resumed at the facility. To accomplish this, CBARR deployed an advance team in late February to coordinate work efforts with the ADOD and begin site setup. A second CBARR team in Australia followed up in early March performing the final stages of site setup, conducting onsite training, and finalizing the operational and safety documents in preparation for the survey and excavation operations, which they call ‘hot operations.’ Together from March 16 to 19, CBARR and the ADOD conducted a pre-operational survey to assess the readiness for the operation to proceed. On March 28, the ADOD gave CBARR the green light to begin field operations to be performed by another CBARR team.

At this point, the magnitude of the coronavirus pandemic became clear. It had left China and was spreading to Iran and parts of Europe. The 13-member second team’s flights were put on hold and travel restrictions began limiting travel globally. So the team had to stay and perform the field operations themselves. The team members took it in stride. They had deployed together many times, and they routinely did site investigations and remediation field operations, too. “When we got the news, our reaction was, ‘Okay let’s stay and get this done’,” said Jim Swank, the CBARR operations crew chief. .

Working with the on-site nurse, they immediately implemented rigorous coronavirus safety measures. That included everyone on the site having their temperatures taken as they arrived in the morning. Each of them had to sign a declaration that they were not experiencing any symptoms associated with COVID-19. They maintained six feet of social distancing from each other on the site, while traveling to and from it, and in their hotel rooms after hours. And, they were required to thoroughly wash their hands frequently, both on and off the job.

Maintaining Mission Focus

Knowing that they were taking all the proper precautions and following their safety measures helped ease their concerns, but the thoughts crept in. “Crew members worried about the possibility of bringing the virus home to their families,” said Carl Tallagsen, the Center’s project safety officer on site. “They were also concerned about how difficult it might be to get the multiple flights they would need to travel the 9,500 miles home.”

However, the team’s mission focus never wavered. CBARR systematically executed the plans that were developed for the operation and successfully investigated each anomaly. The anomalies did not turn out to be chemical warfare items, and the process and procedures used to assess the items provided ADOD decision makers with the information they needed to resume construction activities.

The actual survey and excavation operations, hot operations, took less than a week. The total time on site was almost 40 days. In that time, they were not able to enjoy after-hours barbeques, sight-seeing and socializing as they do during other deployments. “On our way back from the site, we typically bought the groceries we needed to make our dinners alone in the kitchenette each room had,” said Swank. “Evenings were spent watching old American and Australian entertainment shows in syndication on the local television stations, there wasn’t much else on. We got up-to-date news on the pandemic on the evening news shows and from the internet, and we called our families.”

Returning Home

Then the email they had all been waiting for arrived. With field operations complete, they were coming home. But that was not the end of the ordeal. Most airlines had cancelled their flights between Australia and the United States. The Center made contingency arrangements with the ADOD to provide military flights home if all else failed. However, the crew members caught a break. One commercial carrier continued with U.S.- Australia flights.

“We began the 30-hour return journey by flying on a crowded plane to San Francisco, then the crew members flying home to Arkansas caught another plane to Houston while the Aberdeen-based crew m embers flew in a near empty aircraft to Dulles. The Pine Bluff crew, after a five-hour layover, caught a third plane to get the rest of the way home,” said Tallagsen. “We then had to share rental cars to our homes. Taxis and Uber were out of the question given the social distancing we were adhering to as much as possible.”

Once home, they had to quarantine themselves in their homes for 14 days, including social distancing from their family members. “We all took it well,” said Swank. “We were all very happy to have accomplished the mission safely and return to our families.”

A Job Well Done

Both the ADOD and the Center’s leadership fully appreciated their sacrifice. “The team did an outstanding job in completing the work to the highest standards – most importantly safely – but also within schedule. Their patience and dedication to duty under uncertain times is greatly appreciated,” said Mark Bowman, Ph.D., director of Contamination Assessment, Remediation and Management for the ADOD.

“The members of the crew at Orchard Hills took on the risk of coronavirus exposure to eliminate the risk of possible buried chemical agent munitions,” said Eric Moore, Ph.D., director of the Chemical Biological Center. “They once again demonstrated that CBARR field teams are the best in the world at what they do, and that they do it bravely. They also showed that the U.S. Army is a force for good in the world.”

Members of a CBARR field team perform an investigation of potential buried chemical agent munitions in Australia. Photo(s) courtesy CCDC Chemical Biological Center Operational Applications Directorate