MILITARY BASES Economic, safety concerns haunt shuttered facilities
Base closings have hurt local economies and left land unsafe to use.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
MONTEREY, Calif. -- Along a seemingly a pristine stretch of central California coastline, the Army is digging holes and sifting through a mountain of sand, looking for unexploded artillery shells, rocket propelled grenades and other ordnance buried at the former Fort Ord infantry base.
The last soldiers marched out of Fort Ord 10 years ago, but so far the Army has cleared just 5 percent of the base's firing range. The Army has unearthed more than 8,000 live shells and the job could take another 20 years. Even then, Army officials can't guarantee they will get every last bit of ordnance.
The issues at Fort Ord, which overlooks scenic Monterey Bay, mirror a long list of environmental and economic disasters at some of the bases shuttered across the United States during four rounds of military base closures that started in 1988.
In coming weeks, the Defense Department will unveil its biggest effort yet to eliminate surplus military capacity, ordering the closure of as many as 24 percent of its facilities. The risk that communities near those facilities face can be seen in the festering problems that abound at already abandoned bases, where critics say the Pentagon has badly mismanaged the cleanup and redevelopment process.
"The economic devastation is great," said Harry Kelso, chairman of Base Closure Partners, an adviser to local communities. "It hits the local schools, the businesses that supported the base and you lose the direct jobs at the base. Then on top of all that, you have a contaminated piece of property."
Radioactive contamination, lawsuits, leaking underground tanks, lost jobs, dilapidated buildings, broken promises, asbestos laden soil and unexploded ordnance are just a sampling of the problems that have led to growing dissatisfaction and in some cases anger on both the military and civilian sides.
In almost every case, it has taken military services far longer than anybody expected to clean up pollution at the facilities and turn the land over to local communities for redevelopment.
Defense officials acknowledge that past base closures have been problematic, though they say there are "frustrations on both sides of the equation," according to Phil Grone, the Pentagon's top official for the environment and facilities.
Base closures have saved the Defense Department $29 billion and continue to generate savings of $7 billion each year, according to the Government Accountability Office. The GAO found that the Pentagon has passed the halfway point of cleaning up most bases.
As it prepares for more closures, the Bush administration is adopting a new strategy to sell property more quickly, along with the responsibility to clean up pollution. Essentially, it aims to privatize the cleanup and get the military agencies out of long-term environmental and economic relationships with local communities.
The Pentagon is hoping that outright sales of base property will help fund future cleanups, though that prospect is still uncertain. One of its most valuable parcels, the former El Toro Marine base in Irvine, Calif., fetched far less than expected in an auction this year.
"I think we will be able to do a better job than we have in the past," Grone said in an interview. "We know a whole lot more now about the environmental condition of our bases."
Defense officials say they are not at fault for all the delays in getting bases redeveloped.
But critics say the military has done a terrible job and that the new policies could make matters even worse.
"You couldn't design a program to harm communities more economically, even if you intended to do it," said Saul Bloom, executive director of Arc Ecology, an environmental group in San Francisco that has focused on military base issues. "There are no incentives for the Defense Department to do well. Nobody has ever been promoted to general for doing a good base cleanup."
Bloom, as well as many local leaders, say federal authorities are under-funding the cleanup. The Pentagon has spent about $8.3 billion on clean up and expects to spend another $3.6 billion, figures that critics say are low-ball estimates of a job that could cost many times that when completed.
Even when bases are free of serious contamination or live ordnance, local communities struggle to find alternative uses for bases. When the military pulls out, it usually leaves a small self-contained city that often has no practical civilian use. Once-guarded main gates are open to anybody who wanders along, including vandals and arsonists.
Almost all shuttered military bases have hundreds of substandard, decrepit buildings. Sewer systems are minimally functional and not up to civilian standards. Electrical grids and roads must be torn out. Some buildings lack ventilation or heating.
After McClelland Air Force Base was closed, it was discovered that the Air Force had dug nine undocumented pits and dumped plutonium wastes, heavy metals, solvents and fuels in them.
Pollution problems have delayed development of even seemingly valuable land at closed bases near major cities. After 10 years, the Alameda complex, for example, has a fraction of the development anticipated. Brandt, the city attorney, said the land may actually have a negative value because of contamination, including a large underground plume of trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen.
And as has occurred at many other bases, Alameda discovered new pollution after the Pentagon declared an area clean: After taking possession of an apartment complex, the city discovered it was contaminated with chlordane, a now banned pesticide.
The Navy refused to pay for a $4 million cleanup, forcing the city to recover the money from an environmental insurance policy issued by AIG Inc. The insurance giant is now suing the Defense Department, which claims it is protected by "sovereign immunity."