Cleaning Up the Toxic Legacy of Closed Military Bases

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The Department of Defense's Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) plans to close 20 military bases across the country by Sept. 15, 2011. Once a military facility closes, the ripple effect is felt throughout the surrounding communities: families lose neighbors, businesses lose customers and workers lose jobs. In this series of stories, DailyFinance looks at how closures have affected communities in the past, and at what some military families and the businesses that cater to them plan to do once their base closes.

Military base closures can leave behind a toxic environmental legacy that's damaging and expensive to repair. In fact, the U.S. Force and Navy both rank among the top 100 polluters in America, and many of the bases they've left behind as a result of the BRAC closures have been declared Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency.

For most of the 20 bases that are currently slated to close, their path to a post-military rebirth will likely involve some measure of environmental remediation conducted either by the military or by private contractors. Depending upon the level of pollution and the vitality of the community, waste cleanup can vary considerably. To get an idea of what's ahead for the bases slated to close, we've looked at two distinct cleanup cases: Loring Air Force Base in Limestone, Me., and Lowry Air Force Base in Denver.

Loring AFB Enlists the Troops to Clean Up

Active from 1953 to 1994, Maine's Loring AFB was the second-largest airfield in the Strategic Air Command. As a major aircraft servicing and refueling hub, it used a devil's brew of chemicals, many of which ended up sinking into the soil and groundwater around the base. By the time the Air Force left Loring, large portions of the base were polluted with waste oil, fuel, solvents, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, radioactive materials and pesticides.

Even before Loring closed, the EPA had classified it as a Superfund site, identifying 54 distinct areas that needed to be cleaned up or sealed off. Among other things, there were three landfills, an area where trash was burned and a major stream running through the base that was severely polluted with PCBs.

Since the early 1990s, the Air Force has overseen cleanup at the base. Carl Flora, president and CEO of the Loring Development Authority, says the military has spent hundreds of millions to remediate polluted soil, removing 1,000 cubic yards of low-level radioactive waste, clearing away almost 200,000 yards of waste and polluted soil and capping three toxic waste areas. According to Flora, the Air Force has cleaned "basically anything that they can reach."

One of the biggest problems has been the stream that ran through the base: Subject to toxic runoff, it was heavily contaminated with PCBs. To deal with the stream, the military launched "OU-13," a program to completely cleanse the area. According to Flora, they diverted the stream and removed all the polluted soil, replacing it with new, clean material. Unfortunately, PCBs have become concentrated in animal flesh, and it will take several generations for the aquaculture in the area to recover. A fishing advisory banning consumption of fish from local lakes will remain in effect until area fish no longer contain dangerous levels of PCBs.

While the Air Force was able to clean up soil pollution, Loring's groundwater has been a tougher problem. The base sits on a large bed of fractured bedrock, which is permeated with two major "toxic plumes," largely composed of petroleum products. These poisons cannot be directly reached, and the EPA has determined that attenuation -- the natural process of poison dissipation -- will take up to 100 years in some places. As a result, the Air Force has stationed environmental personnel in the area to monitor the toxic plumes to ensure that they continue to dissipate and don't migrate to other areas.

It will be a long time before Loring's groundwater is safe for consumption, and the military's second solution has been to ensure a permanent, alternative water source. Since the base opened in the 1950s, it has run a water purification plant four miles away.

For Flora's organization, the biggest concern is the effect that Loring's toxic past will have on its economic future. The base's closure caused a 76% drop in population, and the relocation of thousands of residents left a major hole in the local economy. In the 16 years since the base's closure, the Loring Development Authority has more than replaced all the civilian jobs that were lost when the Air Force left, but the area has a long way to go before it will recapture the vitality that it had in 1994.

Lowry AFB's Costly Makeover

While the military ran the cleanup at Loring, Colorado's Lowry AFB followed a different route. The base, which was located between Denver and Aurora, was largely used as a training center for bomber crews, and it was left with significant soil and groundwater contamination. The biggest pollutant was yrichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent used to clean engine parts and which had soaked into the bedrock under the base. Once used as an anesthetic, TCE can damage the liver, kidneys and nervous system, and been linked to cancers, including leukemia. At Lowry, the main TCE plume was approximately three miles long.

When Lowry closed in 1994, Denver was in the midst of a real estate boom. The base's position between two thriving cities made it a prime spot for development, and local officials were eager to convert it to civilian use. Unfortunately, the Air Force cleanup program wasn't moving as quickly as local developers hoped. The military repeatedly missed deadlines for remediation and cleanup, and the delays slowed down construction. Tom Markham, executive director of the Lowry Redevelopment Authority (LRA), discussed the problem with Air Force planners: "I pointed out to the Air Force that cleanup is not their core business. Their core business is to protect and defend."

The LRA began exploring other alternatives for cleanup at the base. While privately contracted remediation had not previously been done on a decommissioned Air Force base, it seemed to offer the best option for both the military and Lowry's civilian developers. In cooperation with the Air Force, the LRA negotiated a $39 million contract to cap the base's landfill and remediate its water pollution. In August 2002, Lowry officially became the first privatized Air Force cleanup.

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To deal with contaminated groundwater, the military had used a slow and inefficient "pump and treat" method, in which polluted water was pumped out of the ground, treated and pumped back in. Lowry Assumption LLC, the private contractor that Lowry hired for the cleanup, employed a more dynamic technique: chemical injection. Since 2004, the company has injected an oxidizing chemical, potassium permanganate, at hundreds of sites throughout the area. The chemical has helped break down the TCE, dramatically reducing the size of the plume.

Following the first private contract for groundwater remediation, Lowry Redevelopment negotiated a $30 million contract for soil cleanup. While the second project was comparatively quick -- Markham notes that the EPA has determined that "no further action" is required -- the groundwater cleanup is still progressing, and is being monitored by private contractors, who report to the Air Force.

The decision to privatize seems to have worked out for all involved. For Lowry, it was faster, more efficient -- and, arguably, more extensive -- than a military cleanup would have been. As for the Air Force, Nelson F. Gibbs, the undersecretary who negotiated the cleanup, later asserted that the Lowry privatization saved his office $13 million. Looking back, Markham notes that "The decision to privatize was a win/win for everyone."

See also:
Denver's Lowry Air Force Base Defies the Odds
A Maine Town's Long Recovery After Losing Loring AFB
Will Military Base Closures Mortally Wound Local Real Estate Markets?
Military Families Face Harsh Realities When Forced to Relocate
California's Castle Air Force Base Learns a Hard Lesson in Reinvention
Military Base Closures and the Towns They Leave Behind

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