Click Here to Play Audio

Leaders from across the state, region and federal government gathered Tuesday morning in front of a nondescript gray building in Suffolk.

They stood in the parking lot of a new warehouse. But the area used to be home to a lot more — and a lot of harmful stuff left behind.

At the site of this now-parking lot and hundreds of acres surrounding it, the U.S. military once stored, shipped and inspected thousands of tons of munitions used to fight two world wars.

When it closed more than 60 years ago, the former Nansemond Ordnance Depot left behind contamination from chemicals and explosives that found their way into local soil and groundwater. 

The site, located along the southern banks of the James and Nansemond rivers, is one of more than a dozen Superfund sites in Hampton Roads. The region’s military and industrial history make it especially affected by the legacy of contaminants entering waterways.  

That’s the term used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to denote hazardous waste sites that require federal help to clean up. 

The EPA added the Nansemond site to its National Priorities List nearly a quarter-century ago. 

At Tuesday’s ceremony, agency officials lauded progress in the cleanup since then – including new development that’s started to return to the area.

Superfund sites “are places where people live and work and play,” said Cliff Villa, deputy assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management. “Our job is to make it safe for people to reuse and recreate and redevelop. And that's exactly what we're here to celebrate today.”

FNODpond sized
Photo by Katherine Hafner  

Leaders with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency celebrate progress at the Former Nansemond Ordnance Depot in Suffolk on Tuesday, Sept. 19.

The original Pig Point Ordnance Depot was built during World War I to store military weapons and ship them overseas. By the end of the war, the site was handling 1,300 tons of ammunition each day, according to the EPA, and remained active through the second world war. 

Activities on-site included painting and marking shells, salvaging munition parts, separating ammunition and more.

After the war, the Army transferred the depot to the Navy, which used it for destroying explosives, chemicals and ammunition before closing it in 1960.

Parts of the original 975 acres of land have been divvied up over time for electric companies, warehouses, a military academy, the Hampton Roads Sanitation District and state and local rights of way.

Contamination in the area first caught the attention of local officials in the 1980s, when they found evidence of explosives – some not yet spent like a slab of TNT weighing several tons.

Officials also discovered “extensive contamination” in disposal pits, fill and demolition areas, holding tanks, trenches and offshore dumping areas, the EPA says. 

Site cleanup started in earnest in the past two decades, after the area gained Superfund status. It has included excavating and detonating more than 400 live munitions found on the property.

FNODsign sized
Photo by Katherine Hafner 

A sign shows photos of former military work at the site during the world wars.

Villa said Tuesday that in total, officials have removed 200,000 pounds of munitions debris and 6,200 munitions-related items from the site – including from a pond that sits next to the new RoadOne logistics center.

But they still have years of work to go to deal with 10 “areas of concern” that remain in the hundreds of acres formerly used by the military. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is leading that process. 

Paul Leonard, director of the EPA Mid-Atlantic region’s Superfund division, said officials are investigating parts of the site, while other projects are in design or already under construction. 

This week’s ceremony was meant to recognize public and private partners that have helped prepare the site for new development. That’s the EPA’s focus, Leonard said.

“The Superfund program, our main function is to protect human health and the environment. But once that's done, it's to redevelop and put back into beneficial use the properties that were no longer being used beneficially.”