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Date of Issue: February 06, 2008

Corps seeks further review at Passage Key

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is recommending additional review of the former air-to-ground gunnery range at Passage Key.

The review, however, will be uniquely difficult. Passage Key, once visible from the north end of Anna Maria Island, is under water.

“We might pull out underwater detection gear,” said Charlie Fales, a project manager with the Corps of Engineers’ regional office in Jacksonville.

The Corps is nearing the end of a site inspection at Passage Key, required because from 1943 to 1945 the tiny island in Tampa Bay served as a ground strafing and bombing range.

“Aircraft from MacDill practiced bombing on that site,” Fales said, referring to the U.S. Air Force base in Tampa.

For more than 100 years, Passage Key existed as a national wildlife refuge - visible from the north end of Anna Maria Island. When Theodore Roosevelt named Passage Key as a protected wildlife habitat in 1905, the island consisted of about 63 acres and provided habitat for more than 100 species of birds, including laughing gulls, royal terns, black skimmers, sandwich terns, brown pelicans and oystercatchers. The refuge became home to the largest royal tern and sandwich tern nesting colonies in the state of Florida.

The wildlife refuge designation remains, with Passage Key under the supervision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chasshowitzka National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Crystal River. But Passage Key, for the most part, is submerged. A hurricane severely diminished Passage Key in 1921 and passing Gulf storms in 2004 and 2005 took a toll.

Last summer, perhaps in part due to the drought, anglers, aviators and boaters saw the island appear as a sandbar. But Passage Key is not expected to make a comeback above water, according to federal Fish and Wildlife officials.

The underwater status of Passage Key somewhat complicates what should be a rather routine review for the Corps of Engineers, which is conducting numerous examinations of defunct U.S. Department of Defense weapons sites under the Military Munitions Response Program.

Under the public safety program and at the direction of Congress, the Corps assigns priorities to retired defense sites containing unexploded ordnance, discarded munitions or other material.

Fales characterized the Passage Key review as “fairly low ranking” in the scheme of things - there are more than 120 under review in the Corps’ Jacksonville district, including 25 sites on his list.

Still, the Corps is recommending that the review advance to the next stage, which is a remedial investigation feasibility study. “We would go out there and perhaps do a lot more on-site investigation,” Fales said.

The decision to further the review “is not based on anything we found,” he continued. “It’s based on the fact that we know ordnance was used.”

However, further inspection may be years away, Fales said.

Public comment on the Corps’ recommendation can be made during a meeting at 1 p.m. Wednesday, March 5, at Fort De Soto Park, 3500 Pinellas Bayway S., St. Petersburg.

Public comment can also be sent to Fales at cesaj-cc@saj02.usace.army.mil.