Homeowner Claims Damage from Artillery Range Cleanup

It was the seventh of 10 detonations Thomas and Toni Williams had recorded in a journal between April and August 2011.

Toni was sitting on the stairs of her A Pocono Country Place house in Tobyhanna when she said the artillery explosion began to shake the place. She felt the stairs sink from below her and heard the crack of glass windows and wall plaster as they moved, as if they were being pulled.

Downstairs, her stone fireplace hearthstone cracked and fell onto the wood floor, which was sinking in its corners. When the shaking stopped, the front door would not close, and gaps in the corners of the house appeared. "Everything is off," she wrote at the time.

The couple had became used to the sudden noises and vibrations of abandoned military ordnance exploding since 1997, but this blast was one of a few that they said created lasting damage.

The Williamses moved into the private community in 1995 with the hope of one day retiring there. Their property, located in the very back of the community, shares a wooded backyard with Tobyhanna State Park.

They were unaware, and uninformed, of the state park's former role as part of the Tobyhanna Artilley Range from 1912 to 1949. Having been used as a test site for 37mm, 75mm and 155mm munitions, the range is registered as a Formerly Used Defense Site.

A portion of those unexploded munitions are still present in areas of the state park and neighboring State Game Lands 127, and have been steadily removed for decades. According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), nearly 4,400 acres in high risk of explosives have been cleared of more than 6,400 pieces of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and 907,000 pounds of debris throughout the sporadic cleanup process.

In past years, that cleanup made its way towards Thomas Williams' house, he said. He believes his property is at an unsafe distance from the explosions.

Claim denied

Williams, a U.S. Army veteran, filed a claim of $320,000 in damages with the Department of Army in February 2013, citing the UXO detonations as having caused "property damage, loss of convenience, loss of use and enjoyment, nuisance and other costs and expenses." He had become convinced he would not be able to sell his property after its damages, noting that his bank had taken $83,000 off his mortgage after revaluation.

"It was over $1,650, and they cut it down to $721 per month," Williams said of his monthly payment.

The Department of Army's Tort Claims division denied his claim in January 2014. Due to the Federal Torts Claim Act, which protects government employees in the event that an independent entity is contracted to do the work, they said no government employees were guilty of any wrongdoing. According to the letter, the USACE had contracted with Weston Solutions to demolish the debris and UXOs at the time of any of Williams' damages.

A legal representative for Weston Solutions said they weren't informed of any claim involving Williams, but confirmed that Weston has had contracts at the artillery site before.

USACE Corporate Communication Office Representative Chris Gardner said no houses or properties fall under the munition response sites, and that the majority of work yet to be done is in the Game Lands zone, further from Williams' home. Any damage to their property four years ago would be "not feasible if the contractor followed protocol."

Due to the artillery range being in mostly wooded area, it's common for UXO's to be buried and covered in sandbags before detonation to ensure safety, Gardner said.

"The protocols are in place so that any impacts to the surrounding area are minimized to 100, 200, 300 feet max," Gardner said.

Afraid to move forward

Gardner referenced a map of the excavation zones, speculating that the closest detonations to Williams' house were about half of a mile northeast from his property.

In regard to informing the public, Gardner said the USACE is active on multiple fronts -- publishing public memos, coordinating resident outreach, hosting public sessions and keeping administrative records available at public libraries.

He noted that, of about 5,000 residents in A Pocono Country Place, Williams was the only to file a claim for damages.

However, Williams said he isn't the only one affected by the blasts. He said a neighbor once told him he was knocked out of bed by violent shaking. The neighbor called the community's security desk and was told it was just UXO detonations.

"Everybody is afraid to move forward," Williams said.

Gardner said any claims filed to the USACE such as Williams' are investigated before being decided upon. However, Williams and his attorney appealed the initial denial, attaching photos and written accounts documenting the damage their house received. A letter to Williams' attorney from the tort claims division stated that their appeal request had been granted on July 7, 2014.

The appeal grant, however, came from a division of the Department of Defense separate from the USACE, Gardner said. The last of his department's involvement was in referring Williams to Weston Solutions.

Williams was uncertain if he and his attorney considered pursuing a claim against Weston. After months of waiting, he said his attorney is anticipating a meeting near the end of the year with a Department of Defense official handling his claim.

It's been a frustrating back-and-forth for the veteran seeking what he believes are fair dues from his government, and his main concern has become taking care of a problem before it can get any worse.

"Eventually, this unit is going to be in our basement," Williams said.

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