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.
More than 9,000 sites were identified, according to Addison D. 'Tad' Davis, the Army's deputy assistant secretary for environment, safety and occupational health. He said that at least 2,700 sites around the country have been identified as needing a cleanup, including the 1,544 sites known to have explosives.
Davis said that locating the unexploded munitions can be "a little bit like'' a scavenger hunt at times.
"Let's put it this way,'' he said. "Records are not good, maps are not good, and a lot of dirt has moved from these properties."
Another problem the military faces is detecting chemical contamination. Sites that were tested and rendered safe 20 years ago are being revisited, in light of more advanced scientific information.
"We had a number of properties that were old Nike missile storage sites. These were places where — during the Cold War — you [could] launch a missile from,'' Davis told ABC News. "When we first looked at those sites and tested for contamination, we did not find anything. In the past 10 to 15 years, TCE was found to be a carcinogen, so TCE is now very much a priority,'' he said.
"Our priorities change because, in the environmental world, there's something called emerging contaminants, and you never know from one year to the next what the scientists will tell us is harmful,'' Davis said.
Tatum wishes the military had been better at planning ahead. Virtually every weekend since the summer of 2007, his neighborhood has been rattled by the sound of exploding ordnances.
"When they detonated the first one, it rattled our windows, and it was a half mile away. That's when it really hit us,'' he said.
The detonations have continued, on weekends and after school hours, through last week, he said, adding that his young son has to be evacuated from his day care center every time an ordnance is detonated within 1,000 feet of the center.
Tatum has not had to renew his homeowner's insurance since learning his subdivision was sitting on the former military training site, but he's unlikely to be successful.
Even Citizens Property Insurance Corporation — a state-run insurance-of-last-resort company, created by the Florida state legislature in 2002, in part, for homeowners in risky, coastal hurricane zones — has made it clear they will not insure the homes in Tatum's subdivision.
"The short answer is 'no,' Rocky Scott, a spokesman for the company, told the Orlando Sentinel earlier this month. "If we know there are unexploded bombs there, we would not issue a policy."
So, Tatum hired an attorney, John R. Overchuck, to sue the developer and try and recover some of the money he expects to lose.
Casualty of War — Henry Owens' Hand
Stories of previously buried caches, of sometimes live munitions, pop-up sporadically in newspapers across the nation.
In 2005, after Hurricane Isabel tore up the Eastern seaboard, a contractor, hired to fix drainage problems at the golf course at Langley Air Force Base, uncovered a bomb. The military quickly — and quietly — unearthed 140 practice bombs, and 1,500 pieces of bombs, according to the Daily Press in Newport News, Va.
Seven live landmines and 56 others were discovered near Wilson Central High School in Tennessee in 2002, the Tennessean newspaper reported. The mines were recovered and no one was injured.
But, in 2001, an 8-year-old boy's hand was blown off by a 37mm shell he discovered at what was once the Spencer Artillery Range in White County, Tenn.
"Henry and his parents were out on a family picnic,'' said Bill Cameron, an attorney who represented the Owens in a failed lawsuit against the government and the current landowner.
Cameron said the Owens family "were riding in a go-cart, and they ran across this thing. They took it home.''
For nearly two years, the unexploded shell was a source of pride to Henry and his parents, Cameron said, noting that the family even used it to crack walnuts. They apparently had no idea it was a live munition, left over from an aerial bombing range that hadn't been used since 1944.
In July, 2001, Henry dropped the ordnance while showing it to a young friend, and it exploded, Cameron said.
"Henry had all kinds of problems at school,'' said the attorney. "They were calling him 'Stubby.'"
Cameron sued the government and the landowner, and told ABC News he'd turned up records that showed the government had an agreement to clean up the site.
Indeed, government records show that "decontamination operations'' were conducted in 1950, '52, '55 and '56, and certificates of clearance were issued, though "many areas were restricted to 'surface use only,'" according to the records.
"They didn't find what the rain would bring up over time,'' Cameron noted wryly.
After they lost the lawsuit, Cameron said he lost touch with the Owens family, and attempts by ABC News to contact the family were unsuccessful.
"They were a very poor family,'' he said. "Henry's station in life could have been a whole lot easier if we'd made a recovery'' in the lawsuit.
"There are extraordinary hurdles to suing the government, and there's a good likelihood that, if you do, the lawsuit will be thrown out before you get through the courthouse door,'' said Jim Walden, a former assistant U.S. attorney in New York, who was part of the legal team that got a torture rendition lawsuit, against former FBI director Robert Mueller, thrown out of court.
The government, Walden said, has sovereign immunity. And individual government officials cannot be sued for actions they took in the course of their duties, "unless they violated clearly established constitutional rights, and that a reasonable person would have had to know that his conduct violated the rights at issue.''
The bombing ranges — no matter how egregiously they may appear in hindsight to have been managed — are not likely to yield government compensation after the fact, Walden said.
So, most lawsuits focus on malfeasance on the part of the developer or current landowner, officials and attorneys involved in such cases.
Recognize, Retreat, Report
But, as another veteran military official pointed out, "hindsight is 20/20.
"You can blame somebody today for anything,'' said Ed Heasley, deputy director of the U.S. Ordnance Museum in Aberdeen, Texas. "Even going back to post-World War I, I think a lot of [the burying of munitions] may have been a lack of knowledge of these munitions, and what they could do if they were ever exposed again. I think it's just a lack of education &3151; environmentally [at the time],'' Heasley said.
"Forty or 50 years ago, you wouldn't imagine doing the stuff [developers] are doing today — they weren't regarding land back then. We have here in Aberdeen a situation similar [to Orlando]. They are finding munitions all over the place, mostly here on the post."
So, slowly but surely, a staff of about 300 military officials work with contractors around the nation, engaged in the unenviable task of digging up old, unexploded bombs.
FUDS officials work closely with state environmental agencies, neighborhood boards, and other local agencies, to field questions, reassure troubled residents, and generally explain how and what they plan to do about whatever problem has been discovered beneath a particular neighborhood.
"We try to do this, based on 'worst-first' basis, and yes, something where a subdivision is being built, should have higher priority than a pasture,'' Davis said. "That put us into what we call a time critical removal action."
Davis said new sites are identified all the time.
F.U.D.S. officials have undertaken an awareness and education campaign to avoid situations like that of Henry Owens, the Tennessee boy whose hand was blown off.
"People have found these things, and they think they are souvenirs, and they bring them home,'' Davis said. While "in most cases, there has to be some kind of force [to detonate a buried ordnance], we really stress what we call the three Rs: recognize, retreat and report. We do not want people picking things up and driving them to the police, or bringing them home,'' Davis said.