SOUTHPORT and CAROLINA BEACH — Military Ocean Terminal Sunny Point (MOTSU) representatives made a rare appearance at a pair of public meetings. With information about the facility’s “explosive safety zones” now available to the public, MOTSU had plenty of questions to answer.
RELATED: New documents show most of Carolina Beach, parts of Leland in MOTSU blast zone
On either side of the Cape Fear River Monday, stakeholders presented preliminary joint land use study documents. Last year, the Department of Defense granted Cape Fear Council of Governments $270,000 to complete the study.
The study’s official purpose? To define and inform MOTSU’s neighbors what compatible land use looks like.
Airspace use, building codes, and future development could all be impacted by the outcome of this study, according to Sunny Point’s brigade commander, Col. Marc Mueller. At the same time, Mueller said the military is not directing any future land use through its nonbinding recommendations.
Still, the terminal is seeking to formalize and improve its relationship with elected officials in the study area, according to study documents. It will be up to elected officials in the study’s five municipalities and two counties whether or not to implement future recommendations.
“It’s beneficial to our mission not to have any development,” Mueller told a Southport audience Monday. When Mueller was later asked in Carolina Beach whether MOTSU’s plans included restricting development, he said it would not be an objective.
“It’s not our objective and it’s not our responsibility,” Mueller said.
Information recently revealed to the public shows two concentric “explosive safety areas,” including developed and undeveloped areas.
One, which covers essentially the same area as the federal buffer zones around MOTSU, is the inhabited building distance (IBD). The IBD is the minimum distance maintained between an explosive site and a building not used for munition handling purposes.
A second, larger blast zone, called the K88 quantity-distance arc, is new to the public. This area is considerably larger than federally maintained buffer zones, and includes developed areas like Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and parts of Brunswick County.
At about twice the radius of the IBD, the K88 quantity-distance arc includes areas with a high probability of glass breakage during an explosion. In the event of a disaster, both zones pose a threat to human safety.
“Typically we don’t show the K88,” Mueller said in an interview following the second public meeting. “It was newly released to the public.”
According to Mueller, the terminal is only required to reveal the IBD zone to the public.
Mueller maintained MOTSU has no plans to expand the footprint of the military’s operation. He said K88 zones – which includes nearly all of Pleasure Island and some developed areas of Brunswick County – have not changed.
“Those K88 arcs have always existed, but they’re outside the regulatory requirement for us to maintain explosive safety distances,” Col. Marc Mueller said during the Carolina Beach meeting.
Munitions in transit
Since 1955, MOTSU has supplied munitions for every war the U.S. has been involved in. During the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm, Operation Desert Shield, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, the terminal contributed nearly all of the total resupply of munitions.
“Most munitions for every war that we’ve fought since have gone through Sunny Point,” Mueller said.
During the 2016-2017 fiscal year, MOTSU loaded 3,762 containers onto 65 vessels and shipped munitions to 24 U.S.-allied countries. When munitions are in transit, explosive safety zones temporarily expand and contract.
“Are those arcs in effect all the time? The answer is no,” Mueller said. “It depends, sometimes they’re all the way to the edge of the affected area.”
MOTSU’s decision to include property outside its buffer zone in the joint land use study was not methodological, according to Allen Serkin, Cape Fear Council of Government’s local government services director. “Frankly, it was arbitrary,” he said.
The entire study area includes a 3-mile buffer zone around MOTSU’s terminal and .5-mile zone along its rail corridor. Along its rail corridor, up to 600,000 pounds of munitions can be spread throughout the length of a train at any given time.
Growing concern in Brunswick
As the fastest growing county in the state, development in Brunswick County is one of MOTSU’s major concerns. MOTSU maintains 4,919 acres of property, eased in perpetuity with restrictions in Brunswick County.
The eased property includes 17 miles of tracks that extend from the Sunny Point terminal to Leland’s rail interchange. No vertical construction or development is allowed on MOTSU’s eased areas. Groups of 25 or more people are prohibited from congregating near the hazardous shipping zone.
“If there were a derailment, what’s a safe distance to build?” Mueller asked. “Those are the kinds of recommendations we expect to see in this study.”
Michael Conners, a retired Lieutenant Colonel who attended the meeting as a resident, asked Mueller what MOTSU would recommend for a safe zone outside the military’s current easements.
“My concern then would be, ‘Oh my god, you’re 50-feet from the easement from the train line, there’s 600,000 pounds of munitions on it,'” Conners said. “What is going to be the land values for those people?”
Recommendations that result from the study will not impact property values, Mueller said. They will, however, inform building standards with explosive safety in mind.
“People who own that land will decide what to do with it, what makes sense,” he said.
The developer of Brunswick Forest owns land that straddles either side of MOTSU’s rail line. Mueller said any future utility work required to access acreage up for development would require the military’s explicit permission.
“We have to be prudent as to what kinds of activity we allow on federal property,” he said.
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