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Environmental Progress - Winter-Spring 2004

Green River Ordnance Plant

Illinois World War II Legacy

During World War II, Illinois was the nation's leading producer of ammunition. Our major ordnance production facilities included Sangamon Ordnance Plant in Illiopolis, Illinois Ordnance Plant in Marion, the Elwood Ordnance Plant and Kankakee Ordnance Works near Joliet (later combined to become the Joliet Army Ammunition Plant) and the Green River Ordnance Plant between Dixon and Amboy. Munitions plants were located in the Midwest to keep them out of the reach of possible enemy attacks. The strong work ethic and loyalty of the midwestern worker also appealed to the War Department.

Photo: Circa 1940, shows woman seated at machinery used to  manufacture artillery shells.

A Green River Ordnance Plant employee from the 1940's fills 155mm artillery projectiles with molten explosive.

Most of these plants were built after America's entry into the war, were operated at full capacity from 1942 to 1945 and then shut down as quickly as they were placed into production. More original buildings remain intact at the Green River Ordnance Plant than at any of the other Illinois ordnance plants. During the war, Stewart-Warner Corporation operated seven munitions loading lines in 421 buildings on the 8,342-acre facility. The plant was a like a small city, with its own hospital, cafeteria, fire station, newspaper, 12 power plants, laundry, garage, administration building, housing, communications building, railroad classification yard and weather station.

Green River was the first, and possibly the only, plant in the country to produce the rocket-propelled bazooka ammunition. Bazookas were lightweight antitank weapons named after the blunderbuss-shaped musical instrument invented by Bob Burns, a popular American entertainer of the 1940s.

The construction and startup of Green River in a mere six months would be difficult or impossible to match today, and they did it without computer-aided drafting, e-mail or project management software. Planning for construction of Green River began prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt initiated the National Defense Program in May 1940 and purchase of Green River property began in November 1941. The section of U.S. Route 30 (the Lincoln Highway) between the Rock Island Arsenal and the future Green River Ordnance Plant was also upgraded for heavy traffic before the war began. The generic design of all the ordnance plants was developed before the war. The army of 12,000 construction workers who began in April 1942 had the plant ready to operate by October.

A crew of as many as 4,563 Stewart-Warner employees loaded artillery shells, naval shells, bombs, rifle grenades, fuses and rockets. Throughout its three-year operating period, the plant employed a total of 13,000 workers. In 1942, the workforce was predominantly male but by the end of the war women workers comprised the majority. Adolph Hitler's assumption that American women were too busy with beauty parlor appointments and card playing to help with the war effort proved to be incorrect.

Photo: Holding bay wall showing maximum capacity signage and  "E" symbol.

Plant management determined the safe quantity of explosives, workers and visitors that should be allowed in each work area and posted these limits on the walls. The "E" symbol below the safety sign represents the efficiency award presented to Green River ordnance Plant in 1944.

Green River Ordnance Plant was presented with the Army-Navy "E" flag for production efficiency in July 1944 and earned another two stars to add to the flag by the end of the war. Some of the "E" symbols painted on the plant walls can still be seen today (see photo).

Working at the ordnance plant was hazardous. In one instance, the accidental explosion of a rifle grenade killed a worker as she was packing the grenade into its shipping container. The doubling of the production quota on that day may have contributed to the accident. Another explosion injured, but did not kill, the worker handling munitions. There was at least one railroad fatality at the plant and a number of workers were lost in transportation accidents outside the plant. Each production line had a first aid station to handle minor burns and injuries. The plant hospital treated numerous foot, hand and eye injuries.

Contact with the explosive powder turned workers' hair yellow or green, caused skin infections and made some workers sick. Some employees quit or found another assignment in the plant because of the powder's health effects. Workers were required to shower daily, using a neutralizing soap and had their blood hemoglobin counts tested routinely.

When World War II ended, production ceased and the plant's contaminated wood and unused explosives, including 180,000 pounds of smokeless powder, were burned at the plant's Burning Grounds Reservation. By the spring of 1946, 4,000 acres of the plant had been returned to agricultural use. During the Cold War, Civil Defense supplies were stored in the warehouses. Later, industry moved into some of the remaining buildings. Today, the Green River Industrial Plant occupies 575 acres.

Although the Army conducted some building decontamination when the plant was closed in 1945, there is evidence that explosive and chemical hazards remain. The rapid construction and intensive ordnance production, coupled with the minimal environmental requirements of the day, took their toll on the environment. Explosive powder spilled on the production lines was washed into floor drains. Walls and equipment were washed frequently with acetone solvent to prevent accumulation of dangerous amounts of explosives. The walls of most buildings were constructed of transite, a cement board containing asbestos. Transite is resistant to weather, chemicals and insects and was used extensively on industrial and military buildings. Off-specification ammunition and materials burned at the Burning Grounds Reservation may have left chemical residues or unexploded ammunition in the soil. Although the Army conducted a surface clearance for ordnance items, a considerable amount of ordnance scrap remains.

Photo: Abansoned storage building with x's painted on side.

The crew that removed the explosive contamination in 1945 painted three X's on this building to warn future users that open flame could cause a fire or explosion.

Today, the former Green River Ordnance Plant is being investigated by the Department of Defense as part of their Formerly Used Defense Site (FUDS) program. A Preliminary Assessment, the first phase of the military's environmental investigation, is currently underway. The Illinois EPA reviews this work to ensure that it meets the requirements of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or Superfund. Agency staff also joined the Army Corps in field work while developing the Preliminary Assessment. Sampling for chemical contamination will be conducted at a later date, pending the results of the Preliminary Assessment.

Environmental contamination may also be present from post-war property use. Inexpensive warehouse space in remote locations has attracted tenants with an underdeveloped sense of environmental stewardship. In the 1980s, the Illinois EPA found cyanide-contaminated film chips at Green River. A metal reclaimer had used the cyanide to remove silver from the photographic film. In 2001, the United States Environmental Protection Agency conducted a $2.65 million removal of 52,000 cubic yards of slag, baghouse dust, transite siding and contaminated soil from a portion of the site used by Jepscor Metals Incorporated, a secondary metals smelter. Other tenants and fly-dumpers have littered the site with trash and numerous junk vehicles.

The Army Corps of Engineers' 2002 inventory of FUDS includes 159 sites in Illinois, with 9,184 in all 50 states and six territories. The number of FUDS in Illinois has since grown to 180 - the list continues to grow as more sites are discovered. The funding level for the FUDS program is typically $220 million-per-year for the 50 states and six territories. In 2004, $283 million is available nationally with only $4.0 million available for Illinois, not including the funding provided to Illinois EPA for regulatory oversight of the cleanups. The Corps of Engineers estimates that they need at least $252 million to clean up the FUDS in Illinois and $17.7 billion for the entire country.

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