AGENCY VILLAGE, S.D. - After two days of digging, many of the more than 520 members of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Sioux Tribe, evacuated from their homes, were angry and disappointed that federal officials recovering surplus explosives buried in the ground in the late 1930s by a BIA road crew, found nothing.
At approximately 6 p.m. (CDT) Aug. 3, 600 pounds of explosives were detonated without any sympathetic detonations of the suspect explosives. Officials announced residents could return the following day. If explosives remain underground it is highly unlikely they could be set off by any natural event.
Government officials said the explosion that sent black dirt soaring higher that the town's water tower did not have elements of nitroglycerin visible. That means the area will be safe. Nitroglycerin is more volatile that black powder because it does not deteriorte, officlials said. Black powder dynamite looses volitility because of bacteria and moisture.
The residents of the small reservation community in northeast South Dakota were forced to leave their homes for nearby hotels, a temporary shelter near Sisseton or stay with relatives.
"I'm going to be glad when it is all over," said Tim White, a tribal Head Start worker whose belongings were packed in his car.
"Folks are getting restless and irritated waiting to go home," said Frank Williams, who assisted with security.
"I thought they should have blown something up. I'm just taking it in stride," said Jeff Max Sr. who was watching his son play in a pool at a temporary shelter.
Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a private explosives removal contractor used remote-control backhoes -then moved in in person - to try to locate more 24 cases of blasting caps and one of two sites containing more than 140 cases of nitroglycerin-based dynamite.
Tribal elder Nathan Thompson, sole surviving member of a road crew ordered by the BIA to dispose of the dynamite by burying it in a field, said the work crews were digging too far away, nearly 120 feet, from the site he remembers. After a frustrating two days of digging and finding nothing, officials - beginning to have doubts - took Thompson, now 75, to the site late Tuesday in an attempt to pinpoint the area.
"They are bound to find it because I told them exactly where it was," Thompson said.
Thompson, who had told engineers where the explosives were in June, said it was possible the contents in the disposal area could have shifted or could be deeper in the ground.
Engineers and contractors plotted the area using electromagnetic ground-penetrating radar equipment, which measures the density of the terrain, and dogs trained to identify explosive materials. They began digging in the areas where dogs indicated the strongest likelihood of finding the explosives.
Moving just 2.5 feet an hour, workers dug two holes 10 to 12 feet deep trying to find the explosives.
Officials admitted the dogs might have detected fertilizers applied to the field since they are trained to detect such substances - including chemicals used for fertilizers which might be used in making homemade explosives such as were used in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.
Even though the area was swept twice with the electronic devices, locating the explosives in the field is far from an exact science, Muller admitted.
She said the project is a daunting challenge for everyone because this is the first site of its kind, with the largest quantity of explosives buried in a non-military or manufacturing site. It is also the first found on a reservation, Mueller said.
New methods for such cleanups are under development at some of the nation's leading research institutions. Environmental officials may have a new weapon for future cleanup projects because University of Wisconsin researchers in Madison have identified two enzymes that enable bacteria to degrade nitroglycerin, TNT and other explosives buried in the ground.
Bacteriologist Glenn Chambliss, who heads the research project, suggested the findings may lead to biologically based methods for cleanup. While the research is geared to cleaning up contaminated toxic residues from explosives manufacturing, researchers say they hope their efforts could identify or engineer bacterial strains that could clean up nearly 10,000 contaminated sites across the United States.
They said they believe the bacteria, around for billions of years, developed the ability to degrade man-made chemicals that first appeared 150 years ago. While research is in its early stages, experts believe it could change the way future cleanups are addressed.
Because such tools are not available now and electronic devices have their limitations, the agencies are forced to rely more heavily on Thompson's recollections about where the explosives were buried.
Thompson, a life-long resident, said in an interview Tuesday night there is no question the dynamite is still underground. He said he had been telling tribal leaders for years about it fearing someone would be injured or lightning striking the ground might cause an explosion.
"It's a good thing nothing happened to me because I'm the only one who can tell where to find it. I pray for our people and the workers, " he said.
His concern was evident as he recalled witnessing the demise of a farmer who had handled only half a stick of the explosive while trying to blow up rocks in a field he was leveling. Thompson, who had warned the farmer to allow 20 minutes for the explosive to go off, said the man became impatient and approached the dynamite. It exploded and with it the farmer.
Some of Thompson's relatives played with blasting caps found above ground in their youth. He said one of his nephews was injured when one exploded.
The tribal elder also said that during work on the projects in the late 1930s, other crews working for Works Progress Administration and similar programs in the area may have disposed of more surplus explosives by burying them underground. He suggested there were fewer than half a dozen workers still alive who might recall where the explosives might have been buried.
Residents, camped out a nearby shelter, were frustrated and angry because nothing was discovered during the digging. Meanwhile, adding to their frustrations was the lack of direct information from federal officials Monday when the first dig turned up nothing.
Tuesday officials took a different approach as Mueller stopped into the shelter to inform people of the crew's progress and assure residents their belongings were safe.
Worrisome to the evacuated residents was the prospect they might have to endure more time away from the comforts of home or the potential of leaving their homes again in the event crews have to return for further excavation if explosives haven't been found.
"We had a little setback yesterday," Mueller said Tuesday. "The excavation yielded nothing. They are back out this morning digging. Yesterday's dig was primarily based on what the bomb dogs found. It was a little offset from what the electronic bomb surveys found so they are going to take a step back and start looking a little more closely at what the ground surveys yielded.
She explained that the day wasn't a complete failure "because the workers have a better feel for the equipment and a better feel for the whole situation.
"I don't think there is anything non-intrusive that they can do. If they wanted to take samples, someone would have to go out there ... ," Mueller said. Though frustrated with the outcome of the past few days of digging, she said EPA's commitment to the safe removal of the explosives would continue until they are found.
If the two remaining, undisturbed areas plotted by experts and the area pointed out by Thompson net nothing, it will be up to higher-ranking EPA officials to determine just how much the agency will spend and how much further it will go to rid the area of the dynamite.
"No matter what it takes we will get it done," Mueller said.
The cleanup project has already cost taxpayers more than $1 million in federal Superfund money which will be reimbursed by the agency responsible for giving the order for the burial of the explosives, she said.
Finding the dynamite took high priority because the field is adjacent to a housing development erected in the late 1980s and another older development, home to a large share of the community's residents, across the highway.
The Sisseton-Wahpeton Community College is just to the south boundary of the field. All are within a restricted area considered unsafe should the dynamite explode. Anything within 940 feet of the blast is at risk from flying debris and the shock wave from the detonation of the explosives could travel up to 700 feet through the ground, Mueller said.
If the entire cache of explosives were set off, officials estimate the magnitude of the explosion would be nearly three-quarters impact of the blast at the federal building which killed 168 people in Oklahoma City.
If found, the workers plan a controlled detonation of the explosives which has some residents worried about what might happen to an aging and fragile water distribution system.
While EPA and corps officials say there would be little residue from the detonation, some residents wonder if there might be enough residue released in the air to pose health concerns.
Federal regulations, which largely apply to the handling of explosives in controlled manufacturing environments, are very specific about the limits of exposure. Regulations on nitroglycerin suggest only the smallest levels of the airborne residue of nitroglycerin measured are allowable. The same regulations cite health risks associated with airborne residue absorbed through the skin for those exposed to higher than allowable levels.
Officials are monitoring seismic activity for any detonation which might take place, but nothing has been mentioned about monitoring air quality to assure residents of absolute safety when returning to their to their homes.
Fittings on propane tanks will be checked before residents are allowed to return.