Hidden Hazards: The hunt is on at Fort Custer -- for military training weapons left behind

Hunters with metal detectors are busy in the Fort Custer Recreation Area, but it's not treasure they're seeking. (WWMT/Denise Schermerhorn)

Over at the Fort Custer State Recreation Area, there is a search going on -- using metal detectors. Rather than buried treasure, the hunters are seeking hidden hazards: military training weapons left behind.

During World War II, the area was Camp Custer, an induction and military training center. After the area was deeded to Michigan in 1971, the military cleared out. Recently, it was discovered that a few things might have been left behind.

So the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is going backwards – in time – to review the military’s use of the land now Fort Custer State Recreation Area, as well as other sites across the country. The corps' goal: Identify areas that might contain hidden hazards and remove them. Crews like the one at Fort Custer are doing similar searches at sites across the country.

"Our Department of Defense in war time often used different property for practice," said Kari Meier, an environmental program manager with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Department of Defense also is responsible for the environmental cleanup of those areas, used by the U.S., prior to October of 1986. That includes what is now known as the Fort Custer Recreation Area. It was used by the U.S. Army as a troop training facility in World War I, World War II and briefly during the Korean War.

"There is a bombing target, and there is an artillery range, and a grenade court. So our military would train on these locations," Meier said. "They did have a requirement to screen the property before they transferred it back to the public. Our job is to make sure that they did a good job of that."

According to the Army Corps of Engineers, two children found a softball-sized orange/yellow substance at Eagle Lake in 1977. That prompted a specialized team with the U.S. Army to conduct a search of the shore where they found two inert Stokes mortar rounds. A park manager had reported some 30 to 40 Stokes mortar rounds were discovered in the years prior.

Fast forward to 2018, Meier said the search crews are in the remedial investigation phase, evaluating seven properties: four open munitions response areas and three hazardous, toxic and radioactive waste (also known as HTRW) locations.

The purpose of the investigation is to determine the nature and extent of the threat, if any, posed by munitions. Some of the items they might find, include bombs, hand grenades and mortars.

An area has been sectioned off at Eagle Lake. Crews will use a metal detector to search for anomalies. The team on site said the detector is so sensitive it will pick up items as small as stud earrings and pop tabs. If anything is detected, they will dig it up and analyze it to determine if there is any risk. A similar investigation will take place on the beach, as well.

"There have been historic finds of artillery," Meier said. "I think there was a biker that found one, but all of the items found so far have been ... to date, have been inert."

The park is popular with mountain bikers. We spoke with several cyclists, many who were aware that the area was formerly used for military training. However, few knew about the work currently being done. Even so, what crews are searching for wasn't of much concern.

"Wouldn't be bothered by it if it's out here, I'm sure it's everywhere," cyclist John Gutsue said. "Haven't ran over a landmine lately, couple logs maybe."

Cyclist Dan Warnaar was equally unconcerned.

"My only level of disappointment would be just not having access to the trail," Warnaar said. "I don't personally have a concern that I'm going to run over something that's going to blow me up into 400 pieces."

The Army Corps of Engineers has not yet characterized the risk of the sites and they don't yet know what they might find. They said the trails have been cleared for public use, but teams continue to investigate.

"Our fear is that getting the media and the press and showing the location of these sites is going to encourage public users of the property to actually, actively go look for them," Meier said. "So our job is to go find them before you do."

The corps created a pamphlet as an education tool for the public.

Once the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completes the remedial investigation, they will know what hazards might be located there. Crews then develop a plan for clean-up. The process will take another couple of years.

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