BY WAYNE CHARGUALAF
Journal staff

Several projects related to the military buildup on Guam are being delayed — some up to six months or more — due to rule changes regarding clearance of ordinance from project sites.

Munitions and explosives of concern — or MEC — include unexploded ordinance — also known as UXO — and other hazardous munitions materials left behind by military operations. Common examples of MEC found on Guam are unexploded bombs and grenades from World War II.

Sources within the MEC clearance industry on Guam told the Journal that the U.S. Navy is trying to balance risk against the amount of time and money spent for projects related to the military buildup. The more thoroughly a project site is cleared for MEC, the longer it takes and the higher the cost. Quicker, less thorough clearance operations save time and money.

No construction project can commence until the project site has been properly cleared of MEC. As civilian firms entered into contracts with the Navy, many of them began MEC-clearing operations only to have the rules change. Usually a firm is only bound by the rules included in the original contract. Since the Navy required firms to adopt the new rules, regardless of what the original contract said, projects acquired new costs outside the original scope of work. If there was no additional money left to allocate to the project, work would cease.

“That’s a problem for a lot of these construction contractors,” LeRoy Moore, president of Unitek Environmental Guam, told the Journal. “They assumed they’d be in the field in six months. You buy equipment and materials and then it’s a year and a half later and you’re still not working.”

Much of the debate over MEC-clearance rules comes down to differing assessments of the MEC risk that remains on Guam. Since much of the MEC is from World War II, those that believe MEC clearance should move faster reason that since much of Guam’s soil has already been disturbed, most of the MEC from pre-disturbed areas was already cleared. Also, when accounting for the penetration characteristics of various kinds of munitions — a 20-millimeter round can only penetrate six inches into the ground if fired, for instance — a thorough clearance operation isn’t necessary since the remaining MEC threat in any pre-disturbed areas is minimal.

The opposing view, however, holds that if a thorough MEC-clearance operation wasn’t performed in an area — even if that area was pre-disturbed — MEC could still have gone undetected. In fact, the argument goes, the ground disturbance could have buried the MEC deeper than it would normally have penetrated. Theoretically, that 20-millimeter round that can only penetrate six inches when fired could end up 10-feet underground.

In policy, these schools of thought are manifested in two opposing approaches to MEC rules — one calls for a zero-tolerance policy that requires clearance down to the maximum depth a project will dig. The other calls for a quicker, less thorough clearance requirement with the Navy assuming liability for all residual risk.

Contractors face additional hurdles because different entities within the Navy have authority over different parts of the island, each with their own rules.

Naval Facilities Engineering Command Marianas oversees buildup-related construction in the south, while the Resident Officer in Charge of Construction — or ROICC — in Finegayan oversees such projects in the north.

“It gets a little confusing,” Moore said. “They’re trying to change some of the rules, but unfortunately we don’t know what their interpretations will be. It’s not very cut and dry.”

Another source in the field told the Journal that although Navy regulations have been difficult to contend with, there appear to be signs of hope for the industry.

“There are people within NAVFAC who have differing opinions,” the source said. “[The Navy] is struggling at times but the rules are getting more consistent.”

Catherine Cruz Norton, public affairs officer for NAVFAC,  said the Navy’s program to manage MEC has evolved since it was first implemented in 2011. Since then, the Navy has continually sought to make the program more efficient and apply the same requirements across the board.

“In terms of communicating with contractors, we have hosted several MEC forums as a means to provide information to contractors, to have productive dialogue and to clear up any confusion and misperceptions,” she said. “As new information is released to the Navy, we will look to engage the contractor community through multiple forums and means of communication. At the same time, each contractor should be performing to their specific contract and may resolve any perceived issues directly with their contracting officer.”

(See “Boom time: UXO requirements unearth contract, employment opportunities” in the Oct. 3, 2016 issue of the Journal.) mbj