Monday, April 15, 2024

New documents show most of Carolina Beach, parts of Leland in MOTSU blast zone

As MOTSU completes its Joint Land Use Study to determine compatible land use near its terminal in Brunswick County, new details are coming to light. A major issue affecting surrounding development is the blast zones around MOTSU, which now appear to cover an area significantly larger than the federal government's "buffer zone" easements.

Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point’s blast radius extends beyond its existing buffer zone according to recently released documents. (Port City Daily graphic/Courtesy Cape Fear Council of Governments)

SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — Newly released documents show the blast zone of Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point extends beyond its buffer zones and covers all of Kure Beach, most of Carolina Beach, and parts of Leland and Brunswick County.

The largest military terminal in the world, Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point (MOTSU) transports munitions to and from its port in Brunswick County. MOTSU recently initiated a Joint Land Use Study, to discuss with surrounding residents andlocal governments the military base’s role in future regional development.

RELATED: MOTSU public meetings to begin early next week

According to a report from consultants working on the land use study, the current buffer zone around MOTSU represents a blast zone that could damage “habitable buildings.”

However, beyond that, there is a blast zone that poses a danger to people that extends beyond MOTSU’s buffer zone — this “explosive safety zone” covers nearly all of Carolina Beach and Kure Beach, reaches up north of Snow’s Cut, and also covers potential residential areas in Brunswick County.

These new blast zones appear to play a significant role in MOSTU’s need to communicate more directly with the public about land use around the military base.

‘Born of need’

For decades, MOTSU has coexisted quietly among surrounding communities. According to a 2004 Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command and United States Department of the Army study, MOTSU was “born of need.”

MOTSU opened in 1955, eleven years after the 1944 munitions explosion at Port Chicago, California. Hundreds were killed and hundreds more injured after a munition ship exploded. The event changed the way the military handled munitions and inevitably created the need for a new terminal.

To protect surrounding communities from a catastrophe like Port Chicago, the military maintains buffer zones.

Outside of the terminal’s 8,645 acre base in Sunny Point, the federal government maintains 2,267 acres in New Hanover County, 652 acres in Leland and 400 acres in Brunswick County along MOTSU’s rail corridor.

Dedicated as buffer zones, land use within these areas is limited due to the risk of proximity to millions of pounds of munitions. But more recent evaluations of that risk appear to extend well beyond these buffers.

Explosive safety zone

The 'inhabited building distance' marks the blast zone capable of damaging buildings, but - according to newly released documents - it is not the full extent of the explosive safety zone around MOTSU. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Cape Fear Council of Governments)
The ‘inhabited building distance’ marks the blast zone capable of damaging buildings, but – according to newly released documents – it is not the full extent of the explosive safety zone around MOTSU. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Cape Fear Council of Governments)

New blast zone maps included in MOTSU’s current Joint Land Use Study show the military’s calculation of risk reaches considerably further than its buffer easements.

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the Iraq War, millions of tons of munitions were transported through MOTSU’s Brunswick County base. Between MOTSU’s three wharves, the terminal is capable of holding 45.8 million pounds of munitions, according to a 2004 report.

It appears the military’s net explosive weight capacity has remained roughly the same, based on a sample calculation included in the joint land use study’s most recent presentation.

Still, safety blast zones appear to have changed, or at least expanded, to include damage not only to buildings but also to people as well.

The military uses the “K factor” in determining its Explosive Safety Quantity Distance(ESQD). The lower the K factor, the higher the risk. K328 indicates an “absolute safe distance.”

At K88, older inhabited buildings are especially at risk of glass breakage due to blast overpressure. Joint Land Use Study documents identify this threat – broken glass propelled by high-speed blast winds – as the most significant threat to human safety.

Nearly all of Pleasure Island is now located within K88, an approximately 6.5-mile radius surrounding Sunny Point — a radius that also includes the southern parts of the Brunswick Forest development and the Brunswick Nuclear Power Plant. It also covers the Fort Fisher Ferry terminal and the Fort Fisher Aquarium.

Carolina Beach Mayor Joe Benson is the Policy Committee Representative for his town and a member of the land use study’s steering committee. When asked what might strike residents about the new information, Benson cited these expanded blast zones.

“The fact that the recalculated blast zone may go beyond the current buffer zone as defined, I guess that’s going to have to come out of the wash,” Carolina Beach’s mayor, Joe Benson, said, “that’s new.”

The steering committee for the Joint Land Use Study, a multi-government project to decide how future development around MOTSU property will proceed. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Cape Fear Council of Government)
The steering committee for the Joint Land Use Study, a multi-government project to decide how future development around MOTSU property will proceed. (Port City Daily photo | Courtesy Cape Fear Council of Government)

As a retired Air Force Colonel, Benson is uniquely positioned among the other civilian members of the steering committee to translate the military’s calculation of risk to the public. After serving in the Air Force for 22 years, Benson said he is not uneasy with MOTSU’s blast zones.

“In order for an explosion at one of the three docks across the river to take place, it assumes the maximum amount of ammunition would be on the same dock on the same boat at the same time,” he said. “The odds of this happening are about one in 10 million.”

MOTSU and Pleasure Island developed simultaneously across the river over the 20th century. Though Carolina Beach was there first, the community now occupies an area that would be at risk during a disaster. Benson said he didn’t expect to see Carolina Beach move.

“In fact, Carolina Beach was here, inhabited, before SunnyPoint was built and established,” Benson said. “If they’re recalculations, obviously that’s not going to redirect settlement.”

Now what?

According to Joint Land Use Study documents, blast zones do not apply to munitions during transportation. However, the zones temporarily expand and contract at the terminal in Sunny Point as munitions are staged and transported out.

On June 26, members of the study’s advisory committee were briefed on blast zones and land use information, according to the Cape Fear Council of Governments’ June 2018 project update. Representatives from each of the study area’s two counties and five municipalities were present.

By December, the committee will be reviewing the military’s draft recommendations, which governments can voluntarily choose to implement.

“As it was explained to us earlier, it’s not directly authoritative but rather suggestive,” Benson said. 

The nonbinding recommendations will be informed in part by input received during the upcoming public meetings. With two meetings set on either side of the Cape Fear River on July 30, Benson looks forward to dispelling “Area 51” type rumors about MOTSU.

“The most important part of next Monday is to dispel rumors and misconceptions and alien invasions,” he said.

Interested parties can find complete details about Monday’s meetings here.

June Advisory Committee – MOTSU Land Use Study – Port City Daily by Ben Schachtman on Scribd


Send tips to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com or follow Johanna on Twitter @j__ferebee

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