SNOW HILL — The Worcester County Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) granted Hardwire LLC permission to test military grade explosives at the police firing range in Newark.
However, according to Hardwire CEO George Tunis, negative opinion from area residents has him reconsidering whether his company will use the range.
“We’re really just trying to find the right spot,” said Tunis.
Hardwire specializes in developing armor for the military. An important part of that process is testing designs against the kinds of explosions they will encounter in the field. Tunis admitted that residents who live near the firing range might notice the explosions, but stressed the impact will be much less than people seem to anticipate.
“We’re not testing nuclear weapons,” he said.
In response to concerns in the county, Tunis was willing to limit the maximum size explosive charge used during testing to 25 pounds, half of what his company sometimes uses at their other site in Kentucky. Additionally, Hardwire will only test between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.
“No weekends, no holidays,” said Tunis.
Tunis was also willing to self-impose several other restrictions on the site. There will be no more than two major tests and six minor tests a day and a maximum of two days of testing per week. The danger of having live explosives on hand was not lost on Tunis either. He informed the BZA that security will be a main priority for Hardwire. Explosives will be kept in a heavy-duty magazine, specially designed to prevent tampering or premature detonations. The pit area where explosions will actually go off will be surrounded by fencing, with guards set to monitor the blast site and the road leading to the firing range.
“It’s hard to get to,” said Tunis.
While the assurances were enough to sway the BZA, many members of the public where vehement in their opposition to Hardwire testing explosives in Newark.
“I think your company is overreaching,” said local George Apple. “If you approve this, it is only the beginning.”
The concerns that Apple expressed, such as fear of noise, environmental impact and loss of property value on neighboring homes, were shared by the majority of people who opposed Hardwire’s effort.
“We’re concerned about the safety, the sound, and the environment,” said local Frank Gunion. “It’s going to affect property values.”
During his presentation, Tunis said the largest explosives used at the site would only generate about 181 decibels, which is comparable to a rifle shot. And most tests, he added, would use well less than the maximum-size charge. In fact, Hardwire Director of Engineering Scott Kendal explained that the majority of tests will be done using half-scale model armored vehicles, which only require a few pounds of TNT or C4.
“It’s going to sound like a firecracker,” said Kendal of the half-scale tests.
Many in the audience were skeptical that the explosions would only be equivalent to a gunshot in terms of noise, despite Hardwire’s assurances. Another point of contention is what effect, if any, testing may have on the environment. The firing range is located in a Resource Protection District, as environmental advocates like Assateague Coastkeeper Kathy Phillips were quick to highlight.
“You do have hazardous materials going into the air,” she told Hardwire.
Resident Ed Travis drew attention to the fact that the company has not conducted an assessment of what explosives testing might mean to area ecology.
“Where can I get a copy of the environmental impact study?” he asked sarcastically. “This place is going to become toxic.”
Though no survey has been conducted, attorney Hugh Cropper, who represented Hardwire during the meeting, explained that the explosives would be detonated in a deep pit, under several feet of topsoil which will be brought in from other areas. He also pointed out that the FBI already uses the range for occasional bomb tests, and that Hardwire plans on utilizing even stricter controls and standards for their testing. Kendal added that any debris generated will be collected after every test.
While Hardwire’s bid had its fair share of detractors, a number of people in the community came out in support of the company as well. Both the Worcester and Wicomico County Sheriff’s departments endorsed Hardwire, since most products the organization develops for the military trickle down into police usage. Resident Larry Ward noted that Hardwire’s office in Pocomoke was a dilapidated factory before they moved in. But Hardwire transformed the building into one of the aesthetically pleasing locations in town, according to Ward.
Delegate Mike McDermott (R-38B), who serves as the current range master at the Newark firing range, stressed the economic benefits of keeping Hardwire in Worcester. The company is responsible for millions of dollars in tax revenue, as well as directly hosting more than 60 jobs, and indirectly supporting dozens if not hundreds more. McDermott told the audience that Hardwire has been receiving invitations from other counties to relocate, but want to stay in Worcester.
“It’s a clean industry and they could have gone anywhere,” he said.
One of the most powerful testimonials for Hardwire came from Octavio Sanchez, a current Hardwire employee and former member of the armed service. Sanchez was involved in an improvised explosive device (IED) detonation during his tour of duty in the Middle East. The Humvee Sanchez was riding in was badly damaged, and Sanchez himself was severely wounded, eventually losing an arm. The armor that Hardwire is developing, he said, plays a crucial role in protecting service men from IEDs and other explosives.
“These vehicles Hardwire is putting out there are miracles,” said Sanchez. “We need to get them out there … There’s going to be a whole lot more lives saved.”
While Hardwire had a response for nearly every concern leveled during the meeting, the audience at large remained unsatisfied, with the trinity of noise, devaluation of property and harm to the environment brought up again and again. Safety also remained a focal point, despite Croppers assurance that the range would “absolutely be a secure site.”
“Even under the best practices, mistakes happen,” said Gunion.
As the meeting progressed, the atmosphere became strained and there were a number of outbursts from the audience that made it difficult for the BZA to retain order.
While the opposition confronting Hardwire was enthusiastic and had no qualms about expressing their concerns, the BZA’s final ruling was in favor of the company. Even if the decision wasn’t popular, the board felt that Hardwire’s application was perfectly legal and justified.
The public outcry did generate some doubts within Tunis, however. The same members of the audience demanding Hardwire find a new site, he explained, are also his neighbors, since he lives near the firing range.
“I don’t want you guys spitting on me,” he said.
Tunis did not rescind his application or deny the BZA approval, but he did reveal that because of the public response, Hardwire may consider looking for other test sites in Cecil County, though nothing is set in stone.
“No matter what happens, we will walk out of this responsibly,” he said.