Staff and wire reports
JET — Vials of chemicals found at Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge may contain diluted types of gases used to train World War II soldiers.
The discovery forced refuge officials earlier this week to close the popular 40-acre crystal digging area.
A spokesman with Army Corps of Engineers said Thursday nothing is definitive yet.
“... we don’t actually know. That’s what the Army response group will be doing, looking at it and trying to find out what they are,” Kevin Devery, supervisory geologist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Tulsa, said of the vials.
Members of the Army’s 22nd Chemical Battalion (technical escort) are expected to arrive from Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland today to identify and neutralize the material. They will begin inspection Saturday, refuge manager John Brock said.
One of the vials containing a yellow liquid was uncovered and accidentally broken Saturday by a Boy Scout digging for selenite crystals, Brock said. The material caused the boy to cough and his eyes to burn and his nose to run.
“It was pungent enough to make him run away from it,” Brock said.
Brock said he talked to the boy’s father, and the boy has not experienced any lingering ill effects.
Brock said he and other officials returned to the site later and uncovered as many as 10 more glass vials, which he said are 6 or 7 inches long and sealed on both ends. The vials appeared to have been there a long time, he said.
Between 1942 and 1946, part of the Salt Plains area was used as a practice bombing range by U.S. pilots, although the area where the vials were found was not a part of the range, Corps of Engineers officials said. The area also isn’t known to have been used for testing or storing biological weapons.
The corps last fall completed a survey of the old bombing range to remove any munitions that may not have detonated.
Hundreds of thousands of the training kits for the military were produced between 1930 and 1950, and many were lost or buried at artillery and training sites, according to a 2005 study by the corps.
The kits contained small amounts of diluted mustard gas or other agents in sealed glass containers used to train soldiers to identify different gas attacks.
The crystal digging area will remain closed until park officials are certain it is safe to return, Brock said. Armed guards prevent anyone from entering the closed gates.
Each year, more than 30,000 people dig for crystals from April to October. This is the first time anything other than crystals has been found at the designated dig sites, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Staff writer Robert Barron contributed to this Associated Press story.
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