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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Polluted Defense Sites

Air Date: Week of

Many of the military bases slated for closure are highly contaminated. Cleaning them up could be the biggest barrier to putting the bases to new civilian use. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young looks at what lessons can be learned from past rounds of base closures.


CURWOOD: When the Defense Department released its latest list of military
bases slated to be closed, state and local officials around the nation started scrambling.
Many are fighting to save their backyard bases and the jobs they provide. But if the military installations do go away localities will be looking to put the former defense department land to new civilian use as housing, parks, or industrial centers.
A number of the bases are on prime real estate; but many are also highly polluted with toxic dumps, tainted water and even unexploded bombs. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports that contamination is often the biggest challenge for those who would breathe new life into old military bases.

YOUNG: After more than 70 years of military activity on Cape Cod in Massachusetts,
Otis Air National Guard Base could be heading for retirement. It’s on the
latest list of installations the Defense Department wants to close and it’s
probably the one with the worst contamination. Cape Cod resident Peter Schlesinger says the base has a long, proud history that has also left a long list of pollutants.

SCHLESINGER: Fuels, aviation fuels, diesel spills, different types of cleaning solvents, rocket fuel additives, explosives.

YOUNG: Much of that was dumped right on top of the region’s main water source, and
has seeped into the aquifer. Which is why Schlesinger has joined federal and
state regulators and the military in a multi million-dollar effort to track
down and clean up contamination.

SCHLESINGER: Without clean water we don’t have jobs, we won’t have tourists,
we won’t be able to sell our homes, and we won’t have a safe place to bring up children.

YOUNG: The nonprofit Center for Public Environmental Oversight reviewed defense
records on 35 of the bases slated for closure and found widespread contamination. Center director Lenny Siegal found seven of the installations on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund list of the worst toxic dumps. The Defense Department projects total cleanup costs at about 2-point-9 billion dollars. A lot of that cleanup is already underway. But Siegal says the cost is likely to go up after bases close down.

SIEGAL: Until you’re really out looking for problems because you’re going to do something with the property you may miss some of them so it’s quite possible that the final bill for cleanup at these sites will be somewhere around twice as much as what it is now.

YOUNG: From the last round of base closures in the 90s, about a quarter of the
land—some 138 thousand acres—has still not been transferred to local control. A report last month from the Government Accountability Office says that’s mostly due to the need for more environmental cleanup. The military is responsible for that job but the military’s definition of "clean" does not always match what regulators want. Tim Ford, with the nonprofit Association of Defense Communities, says that can leave the local government in a sort of bureaucratic crossfire.

FORD: You have the military services saying that they’ll only pay to have the land cleaned up to this standard then the states say ‘well, you have to clean it up to this other standard.’ And the people in the middle are the local redevelopment authority who can’t make anything happen because no one can agree on what the standard is going to be for cleanup.

YOUNG: Ford, Siegel and others say there are lessons to be learned from the earlier
base closures. Lesson one: communities need more information. At Colorado’s former Lowry Air Force base near Denver new homes and businesses are already in place. But resident Ann Callison says it has not gone smoothly. She’s been involved with the Air Force cleanup for more than a decade and says she asked for a full characterization of the site at one of their first meetings.

CALLISON: And it took nine years to get the first draft of that. In those nine years some development began and the results have not been pretty.

YOUNG: Homebuilders found soil laced with asbestos. Callison says that brought a
new round of cleanups, lawsuits and anxiety among homeowners—all of which
might have been avoided with earlier disclosure.

CALLISON: I would just suggest to all these leaders in these communities that
they get these operational site histories done pronto. This is the first step towards redevelopment.

YOUNG: Lesson two: follow the money. In Monterey County, California, the Army’s old Fort Ord took up thousands of scenic seaside acres--very valuable, but mostly still too dangerous to sell, largely due to unexploded ordnance. The military has already spent 300 million cleaning up Fort Ord and Redevelopment Authority Director Michael Houlemard says it could take twice that to finish the job. But Houlemard says government spending to clean closed bases has been going down.

HOULEMARD: It’s been reduced every year for the last six or seven. At the rate they’re funding it this year it will take 25 years to finish the cleanup.

YOUNG: The Defense Department says its funding is adequate. Alex Beehler is DOD’s assistant deputy undersecretary for environment safety and health. Beehler defends the military’s cleanup record and says they’re looking for ways to improve.

BEEHLER: We’re using the best, latest technology to make sure we can clean up successfully and completely in most effective and efficient manner. And we’re on the hook. We have to get the job done. If we don’t get the job done, we’re subject to all the strictures of law.

YOUNG: DOD has tried to persuade Congress to change some of the laws on toxic waste at bases. Environmental groups call those special exemptions that could make matters worse. Beehler says they’re simple clarifications. Congress has, so far, denied the military’s requests.

Back in Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, Peter Schlesinger keeps an eye on contamination at the Otis base, considers the hard lessons from other base closures and remains an optimist. He’s sure his community will benefit if Otis shuts down because he knows his neighbors will continue to demand a full cleanup.

SCHLESINGER: It’s the citizenry that get involved to read reports to think about
the material presented and be willing to stand up and this kind of citizen activism is
really required to effectively direct any base cleanup.

YOUNG: Consider it a call to arms for the civilians who want to make the most of
their old military bases. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.



- The Center for Public Environmental Oversight

- Site for the Department of Defense’s Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Committee

- Association of Defense Communities

- The Military Toxics Project


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