By Lt. Col. Patrick Suermann, Ph.D., P.E., LEED AP, M.SAME, USAF (Ret.)  

According to the Government Accountability Office, Pacific Pivot, a major redeployment of 4,700 U.S. Marines to the island of Guam with an estimated cost of nearly $11 billion including Military Construction (MILCON) and other expenditures, is in its seventh year of execution. Due to Guam’s extremely remote location, the island boasts an area cost factor hovering near 2.0, as it is 13° north of the equator and 3,000-mi from the Asian mainland. While MILCON in Guam is very challenging for these reasons alone, the process is further compounded by the requirements for handling Munitions and Explosives of Concern (MEC). Project managers must find a balance between required safety precautions and limiting the cost and time growth already associated with MILCON projects in remote environments.

On Guam, MEC clearance is the process of safely clearing an area of (likely) World War II-era unexploded ordnance. Clearing is required for 100 percent of ground disturbance on Andersen AFB, such as infrastructure improvements on underground utilities, facility construction, or renovation. On work at places like Guam that are managed by Naval Facilities Engineering Command – Joint Region Marianas, both Naval Sea Systems Command OP 5 and Naval Ordnance Safety and Security Instruction 8020.15D dictate when MEC clearance occurs and how it is conducted. These instructions are part of the Munitions Response Program (MRP), which was initiated in 2001 after Congress directed the Department of Defense to identify and prioritize munitions response sites. Under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, MRP is designed to render safe and dispose of discarded munitions, unexploded ordnance, and any residual materials at former battle sites, closed ranges and munitions disposal sites.

Dealing with Munitions and Explosives of Concern further complicates Military Construction work on Guam, which is already challenging due to the remote location of the island.

On Guam’s installations, MEC exclusions zones vary, but are most often either 450-ft or 152-ft in all directions from the area where the earth is being disturbed. All MEC work begins with a 450-ft exclusion until the contractor has dug, scanned and cleared to a preset depth. At that point, the exclusion zone can be reduced in size to 152-ft and the outside area is no longer off-limits.

The size of the exclusion zone depends on the type of munitions suspected to be in the area. Traffic may be rerouted, or there could be road blocks. MEC clearance operations are scheduled to produce the smallest possible impact on the community and often occur at night, which could possibly add more cost. This could be incredibly intrusive on MILCON sites or their neighboring missions.

Necessary Expertise

Typically, former explosive ordnance disposal technicians or individuals who have attended a DOD Explosive Safety Board-approved school are the registered contractors overseeing the MEC process and performing the scanning of soil as digging occurs. Personnel use metal detectors to scan the ground and excavate in incremental tiers. If anything is detected, they will investigate it, remove it, and rescan before proceeding. Cleared soil is separated and inspected by a government agent to ensure compliance. Often, local explosive ordnance disposal support units will be called in to render safe any real threats.

To meet the primary goal for MEC of minimizing cost while assuming acceptable risk, a Pentagon MEC Council meets weekly. The council concluded that the cost impact from 2010-2015 averaged a 5.48 percent total cost of the programmed amount. In the 2016 period, the Naval Ordnance Safety Security Activity visited and expressed concerns that MEC precautions were not stringent enough. Leadership added precautions that started trending cost growth upwards of 7 percent of the programmed amount. However, after that relative spike, the cost has settled to around 4 percent and this is what government engineers and contractors use as a reliable estimate for specifications and planning.

The Way Ahead

Further measures successfully minimizing cost and assuming appropriate risk are pending. These include exemptions for previously disturbed areas like the Andersen Flight line (where some Marine Osprey beddown is occurring) and some concessions on pace and depth for other areas deemed appropriate. However, undisturbed areas like Andersen South or some locations in Barrigada may not enjoy the same exemptions.

Pacific Pivot is far from complete, and there are many more opportunities for learning how to ensure that mission accomplishment is truly balanced with safe construction processes, which, in turn, will ensure the safety and security of future military operations on Guam.

Lt. Col. Patrick Suermann, Ph.D., P.E., LEED AP, M.SAME, USAF (Ret.), is Department Head, Construction Science, Texas A&M University;

Article first published in the January-February 2019 issue of The Military Engineer.