Just what did the Army bury at the Sacramento Valley Wildlife Refuge?
At the Sacramento Valley Wildlife Refuge just south of Willows, as buses full of schoolchildren gawk at flocks of courting birds and hunters get their permits in order for this weekend’s hunt, the staff has been busily preparing for the annual Snow Goose Festival. But in a far and forgotten corner of the refuge, under several feet of earth, lies what is thought to be at least 200 hundred tons of unexploded military ordnance, secretly buried and nearly forgotten about almost 40 years ago.
As first reported by The Sacramento Valley Mirror, a feisty independent newspaper from Artois, a retired game warden and former part-time heavy-equipment operator for the refuge has recently come forward with a story that indicates that as much as 250 tons of surplus ammunition was dumped at the refuge in 1967 by an unknown branch of the U.S. military.
Frank Russell, who at the time worked seasonally for the U.S. Department of the Interior, confirmed the Mirror’s story, saying that he helped dig the approximately 30-square-yard hole into which hundreds of full ammunition crates were dumped out of a line of olive-drab Army trucks stretching as far as a half-mile.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Russell, who now lives in Ukiah, recalled the summer when he and two other excavators dug out the hole near Pole Line Road, just off of Highway 99.
“It was mid-day when [the refuge manager] got me and told me to take my equipment to the spot. I think on the third day we left the hole, probably mid-day.” By then, the Army trucks had begun to arrive. Once the crew had finished its work, he said, he said, “The hole was tarped off. They basically, if you can visualize, they strung a clothesline around the hole and then draped a tarp over it. That’s when I was told to go find something to do.”
Russell left the area soon after, but not before gazing on a long line of an estimated 50 trucks waiting to dump their cargo into the freshly dug depression. Russell said he could tell they were loaded, five-ton trucks issued to either the Army or Marines because he had driven a similar one in France following WWII.
After following the order to leave, Russell said he met with and questioned the other two diggers on the job. One, whose nickname was “Tinker,” had stayed behind to fill the hole once the army trucks had left.
“When Tinker finished for the day, we all basically met up before we went home,” Russell said. “I asked Tinker, ‘Tink, what was in the hole?’ He told me, ‘Boxes upon boxes upon boxes of all kinds of sizes.’ And he says, ‘Some of them broke open when they dumped and I seen bullets,’ and he kind of indicated that they were six, eight inches long. I could kind of tell he meant .50-caliber stuff. ‘And I seen larger cylinders … six inches in diameter, a couple feet long.’ I remember that like it was yesterday.”
For years, Russell wondered what had been put in the hole he and his fellow workers had dug over those three days. A few years ago, he reported it to the state Fish and Game Department but never heard any reply. Recently he decided to make his story public because he worried someone might someday disturb the site without knowing what was there.
“Can you even envision someone with a backhoe digging down there and coming across this stuff?” he asked. “It [isn’t] so much that the material’s there … but [they need to] make certain that everybody knows about it and put a fence around it so nobody ever disturbs it.”
Glenn County sheriff’s Sergeant Ed Anderson, who serves as coordinator of the Office of Emergency Preparedness, said there could be a real risk of explosion if what is thought to be buried at the refuge were unintentionally tampered with.
“It’s a danger—what if someone would happen to be down there using an excavator or digging a pipeline or even one of those trenching tools, and they run into this stuff and it starts exploding? Some of the containers described to us were six inches in diameter and a couple feet long. … Well, those are probably, what, 20 mm or bigger cannon rounds or something like that. You hit that on the primer, and it’s going to go off just like a bullet.”
But what worries Anderson most is the thought that nobody knows exactly what was buried at the site. Calling Russell “an extremely credible source,” Anderson said he was convinced that the military had secretly buried some type of munitions there. While refuge employment records indicate that Russell and the men he worked with were employed there at the time, there is no official record of any military dump site anywhere on the nearly 11,000-acre refuge.
“We also don’t know what else they buried,” he said. “Were there any chemical munitions involved? Whether it could be tear gas or anything else—are those going to leak? Are they toxic? Are they going to be toxic to the groundwater? If they get into the environment, it may be a health hazard to humans and wildlife. So it’s an unknown situation.”
Refuge Deputy Manager Greg Mensik, who only recently learned of the possible dump site, said he had just begun working through the bureaucratic channels involved in investigating such claims.
“I haven’t been to unexploded-ordnance training,” Mensik joked. “This is kind of out of left field.”
Refuge workers have roped off the approximate site where the dump is believed to be. Until Russell’s story is proven—perhaps by aerial reconnaissance, ultrasound or heavy-duty metal detectors—there isn’t a whole lot else they can do.
“I have no reason to doubt the story,” he said. “It’s kind of common knowledge that the military has been associated with burying different things in different places, so it’s not unheard of. The problem is, you can’t just say, ‘Hey Army! You did this, now come deal with it.’ You have to build a case.”
The refuge was dedicated in 1937 and is run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of the Department of the Interior.