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Evacuation-weary Agency Village residents back home

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AGENCY VILLAGE, S.D. - Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux tribal members settled into their homes after waiting a week for federal officials to clear a small parcel of a farm field adjacent to their homes of explosives.

Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and an explosives removal contractor worked for four days, digging in hopes of locating a cache of dynamite buried since the late 1930s. The event forced more than 523 tribal residents to evacuate their homes for a week, sending many to nearby hotels, a temporary shelter and the homes of their relatives.

Finally, after days of what seemed like a futile effort to many of the tribal residents forced from their homes, federal officials used more than 600 pounds of explosives which shot smoke and flame into the sky the evening of Aug. 3 to set off the old explosives. The workers spent much of that night trying to determine if the plan worked.

Through four days of turning up nothing in the quest to find the explosives buried by a road crew under the direction of the BIA, residents grew frustrated and disgusted by their forced evacuation. EPA officials decided, with an Aug. 4 deadline looming, to use a blanket explosion hoping shock waves would trigger a blast to eliminate the old dynamite.

Two large columns of flame and billowing smoke erupted from the site.

Families waiting in the back of pickups and on rooftops to catch a glimpse of the explosion finally saw what they had been waiting for.

The difficult search for the explosives demonstrated that technology still isn't advanced enough to pinpoint such stockpiles. Few options were at their disposal. They spent days of searching with ground-penetrating radar and attempted to pinpoint the sites where the old explosives were buried using dogs specifically trained to detect the presence of explosive materials.

Despite their efforts, they were forced to try to locate them with the help of Nathan Thompson, a tribal elder and former road crew worker who had buried them more than 60 years ago.

Originally officials prepared for the worst with the expectation they would find nitroglycerin-based dynamite, the most volatile of the explosives. However, the emergence of a bright orange fireball and the black smoke showed evidence it was black-powder dynamite, a less volatile explosive.

Despite the inconvenience, local residents said they were relieved the event was over and they could go back to the comforts of home.

"It is better to be safe than sorry," said Fred Williams who assisted with security during the evacuation.

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The investigation into the buried dynamite began nearly a year ago when Thompson, the last surviving member of a BIA road crew told officials that more than 140 cases of dynamite and 24 cases of blasting caps were buried in 1938, after disposal was ordered by the BIA superintendent.

When days of searching turned up nothing, EPA officials decided to place the three charges in the general area, hoping the blast would set off the nitroglycerin underground.

Tim Matheson, a demolition expert retained by the corps, explained that after 62 years, black-powder dynamite will not explode on its own. However, the nitroglycerin-based explosives they believed to be under the ground continued to be a threat because nitroglycerin is immune to decay.

While getting wet would have prevented the black powder dynamite from detonating, officials were satisfied to dispose of it to give residents a greater peace of mind.

EPA officials confirmed the blast hit the area where Thompson had suggested the dynamite was buried.

Although the blast threw debris onto several nearby homes, damage from the blast was minimal, said tribal Vice Chairman Jake Thompson.

"Electricity is on. The water system is fine," Thompson said.

Tribal residents were concerned that the blast would create problems with the tribal water and sewer system because of fragile pipes, but it appeared unharmed.

All of the experts who addressed a curious crowd, assembled after the explosion, thanked residents of Agency Village for their patience and understanding while forced from their homes.

Confident the efforts to explode the old dynamite would pay off, EPA spokeswoman Nancy Mueller had said, "If what we set off doesn't detonate the buried explosives, nothing will."

The EPA said more than $400,000 was spent from a $1 million fund established by the EPA for the dynamite removal. The money came from federal Superfunds normally used to clean up contaminated sites across the nation.

Nathan Thompson, a life-long resident, said he was certain the explosives were there and that he had been telling tribal leaders for years of its existence fearing someone would be hurt if it went off. Thompson echoed the relief knowing the explosives were no longer a threat.