Last summer, Florida resident Michael Tatum learned that his brand-new, custom-built, three-bedroom home was sitting on a former World War II bombing range, and that the earth beneath his yard was littered, for acres in every direction, with hundreds of unexploded bombs and other munitions.
"I made the biggest investment of my life,'' he said last week of the home he purchased with his wife. "We didn't buy a three-bedroom because we were expecting guests. We wanted to grow a family here."
"Now,'' he said, "I can't give it away."
Tatum is not alone.
There are currently 1,544 sites around the nation — in every state — that contain unexploded bombs, mortar rounds and munitions, covering about 10 million acres, according to government records and experts interviewed by ABC News.
At least 38 people have died, and 64 injured by these munitions, according to the Army. The Associated Press puts that figure higher — at 65 killed and 135 wounded — since the end of World War II.
Seventy percent of the victims were children, the government says, and according to experts, the scope of the problem is enormous.
Federal officials told ABC News a cleanup project, known as FUDS, for Formerly Used Military Defense Sites, has an annual budget of $250 million. The project will eventually cost $18.7 billion, with a targeted date of completion somewhere between 2080 and 2086, depending on who you ask. This has left homeowners, like Tatum, wondering how this ever could have happened.
Stateside Training Sites
"How it happened is very simple,'' said Candice Walters, a spokeswoman for the United States Army Corps of Engineers, which has been tasked by the Department of Defense with surveying and cleaning up the sites.
"Since the American Revolution on forward, the U.S. military has trained it's troops to fights wars. And part of that training is training with live ammunition,'' which, Walters said, included firing ranges, aerial bombing, and even cannon practice.
The military bought, rented or leased thousands of stateside properties over the years, she added.
"At the end of the wars, there wasn't a need to have the [military training] installations anymore, so they closed them down and either gave them back to the property owner, or back to the state or county.
"They did what was environmentally acceptable at the time, which was, they dug a patch and buried them,'' Walters said. "They'd sweep up what they could see on the ground, and collect and dispose of them underground.
"What they tried to do when they gave back the land was to say that, in some cases, there could be unexploded ordnances underground. But much of this was farmland, forests, places where no one ever thought people would ever build a housing project there."
In 1986, when the Department of Defense established the FUDS program, the Army was charged with going back through all available military records to determine when and where the D.O.D. caused contamination, via unexploded munitions, or chemical contamination through the use of compounds now known to be carcinogens, such as trichloroethylene, known as TCE, which was widely used to degrease fighter jets and missiles during the Cold War.