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Released June 20, 2003


By Christopher Mapp

HATTIESBURG - University of Southern Mississippi biologists studying the effects of training exercises on the water sources leaving Camp Shelby say the military is running one clean operation.

"We look at water that has its source at Shelby and make sure that training they're doing there doesn't hurt that water - and it doesn't," said Dr. George Pessoney, a professor of biology at Southern Miss who, along with two other teams, studies the aquatic health of the camp's seven streams originating from the site.

Funded by the Mississippi Military Department since the mid 90s, Pessoney's team assesses the quality of the water while another team working in the "Aquatic Biomonitoring Program" assesses the health of the streams' inhabitants. Both monitoring programs were devised to ensure environmental responsibility.

Much of the land used for training at Camp Shelby is owned and maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, which requires water testing four times a year. The land comprising the training sites is massive - some 133,185 acres - and contains diverse habitats, including aquatic, wetland and terrestrial components.

While no stream courses through the training sites, at least seven streams start there and empty into Black Creek, which has been federally designated as a "Wild and Scenic River." From there, water originating at Shelby finds its way into the Pascagoula River Basin, a large free-flowing system that empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Since the Army National Guard does everything from maneuver tanks to fire rocket launchers on those grounds, scrutinizing the environment is crucial.

Aside from U.S. Forest Service regulations, much of the need for testing arises from the effort to keep good relations with "our hosts and our downstream neighbors," said Capt. Robert Lemire, Natural Resources Manager at Camp Shelby.

"It is imperative that we remain watchful of environmental problems as they might arise," Lemire said. "Our Water Quality and Aquatic Biomonitoring Programs help us meet that need."

Dr. Fred Howell, professor of biology at Southern Miss, leads a team of students that studies the health of macroinvertebrates - such as aquatic insects - living in the training site streams. Using a data collection method from the Environmental Protection Agency, Howell and his team evaluate the biological integrity of streams by evaluating the ecologic health of the macroinvertebrate communities. This gives the team an idea of the relative well-being of a stream's drainage area through time, Howell said.

"The impacts of any training or construction capable of altering downstream or off-site aquatic habitats will be reflected in the data," he said. "This could include increased sedimentation, organic enrichment or toxic contaminants."

Howell said if a serious problem exists within the stream, such as toxic metal contamination, the system will lose species and become more simplified through time, meaning species could be both reduced in number and suffer from a less functional role in the ecosystem. This evidence would be reflected in their analysis, Howell said.

The presence or absence of certain species at the sample site can indicate whether or not a stream is healthy. "This concept is critically important in assessing streams because it allows us to speculate about the root of the problem," Howell said.

Camp Shelby, according to Howell, has always done an impeccable job of keeping its training area environmentally clean. Located 12 miles south of Hattiesburg, Camp Shelby is one of the nation's largest mobilization sites, training more than 100,000 troops annually. Twenty-seven of Camp Shelby's 65 training areas are considered "special" training sites. These include a 14,000 acre high explosive impact area, three parachute drop zones, 17 mortar firing points and 114 field artillery firing points.

Despite the barrage of activity and the subsequent impact on the surrounding environment, the streams have been shown through the university's research to be of top quality, meeting the state's environmental standards.

Howell said: "The burden of proof is on the military department to show they are good stewards of the land. And I challenge anyone to compare the quality of water on these training sites to surrounding areas. You don't see cans and trash in the streams, as you see on public lands sometimes. These are some of the cleanest lands anywhere."

Each year Southern Miss's contract with the MDD is up for renewal, Howell said. When added together, he said these two contracts have amounted to about $1.5 million over the last five years. "That's money paid in the form of salaries to faculty, graduate students, expenses for the project," he added.

Designed to provide real data that can be readily understood by concerned citizens, both programs are also conducted at Camp McCain in Elliott, a Mississippi Army National Guard training site that covers almost 13,000 acres.

Information collected and archived from these programs can be compared not only to recent data, but also with data from the same streams taken 100 years from now, Howell said.

Using the university to provide this and similar programs, Lemire said, gives the MMD a constant pool of potential workers, both permanent and temporary.

"Many of the students use these data sets in their graduate research and these efforts often result in extramural research that might otherwise get buried," he said. "By the time that some of these students get to us, they not only have a good idea of what we are about, they are trained in the tools and techniques needed for our environmental evaluations."

Lemire added, "It's a good deal for everyone, and we work hard to keep good working relations with our universities."


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April 20, 2004 4:09 PM