Cleaning Up the Toxic Legacy of Closed Military Bases

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.

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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I wonder where these experts come from. I just retired form the Navy. My job was to ensure that the squadron complied with all EPA, Local and Base Environmental guidelines. I am schooled and have documentation for knowledge of compliance laws for environmental protection, Pollution prevention programs, hazardous waste disposel, spill response, hazardous material control and cradle to grave tracking. All military bases must conform to federal, state and local environmental laws. Theses bases are very old, prior to 1973 there was no EPA. Bases outside the USA are subject to the host contries laws, not USA laws. Yes base closure makes life difficult for use retirees. An increase in pay would help, better yet let us keep esential servieces at old bases for a propper military benifit to those uf us that servred for twenty ofr more years honorably. Mike G. AM1 USN RETIRED

September 27 2010 at 2:02 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bill of Rights

Sad to say how we missed the closing of Bergstrom, AFB. just a few miles South East of Austin, Texas. It closed in 1994, as it was our retirement Base. It's a long drive to use the Bases in San Antonio, for Medical, Base Exchznge and Commissary. I feel that the USAF should ensure that all retired home owners, have their retirement income adjusted by at least 26% for any Base Closed in the future! Does anyone else care to post their feeling about this suggestion?

September 27 2010 at 12:35 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
Brian Workman

Give the land to business's that are willing to clean up the areas where they want to build offices before the building construction begins. Problem solved?

September 26 2010 at 10:53 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

They're not blooms, they're PLUMES.

September 26 2010 at 9:59 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

For idodeco2 and charles, and anyone else who wants to know. The handling of hazardous waste materials has, for years, been regulated by the EPA. The requirements also include provision for secure site closure, so that the location is not left contaminated. If soil needs to be dug up; it must be 'cleaned' by processing via high temperature (2000 degrees) incineration. The chemical content is decomposed back to its elements; and the off gases are 'scrubbed' to neutralize acidity. The exit gas is at least as clean as the atmosphere. And yes, proper disposal in this manner is expensive. But not doing it right gave us the damage of Love Canal (near Buffalo), and Hinckley CA (the Erin Brokovich story). Unfortunately, the military seems to operate outside the requirements of the EPA. 'Anything Goes' or 'Whatever' seems to be their guideline.

September 26 2010 at 9:23 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

For many years in this country, the handling of waste materials has been regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There are requirements for handling, storage, and secure disposal of waste materials. This includes procedures for site closure. The same has not been the case for military sites (unless that has changed since the year 2000). Waste materials are dumped onto the ground (without an impervious barrier beneath), or poured next to, or even into the nearest pond or stream. Sometimes wastes are 'burned' in open pits, which only spreads the poisons via thick black smoke. These methods in no way comply with EPA regulations. Recently, it has been disclosed that US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are dealing with hazardous waste materials in the same sloppy way. There are a large number of 'burn pits' which will contaminate these countries for many years after the US forces are finally brought home. So far, nothing has been done to discipline the military and civilian officials who OK'd the improper and illegal methods of waste disposal. And history seems to suggest that no one will be held accountable for their (criminal) actions.

September 24 2010 at 2:49 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

the whole federal government is toxic. what do we do about it?

September 24 2010 at 2:34 PM Report abuse +9 rate up rate down Reply

Ahhhhhh yes! The 'gift' that just keeps on giving!

September 24 2010 at 2:05 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

We need to bring our soldiers back home and close a lot of the over sea bases. By doing that and cutting off funds to our enemies for ranson,we could build a defense program that they would think twice about attacking us.The dems in clintons stay at office did away with half of our defense,Which,in my mind caused the 911 attack because of our reduced force.

September 24 2010 at 12:54 PM Report abuse +8 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to highmileage724's comment

Do you really believe the nonsense you just ststed. The first round of base closures started in 1988. Clinton was not even in office yet.

September 24 2010 at 1:22 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

As a former Air Force Officer who left the service because of the drawdown or Reduction In Force (RIF) of the Early 1990s, Just let me point out that it was George H.W. Bush who signed the drawdown into the Defense Budget so that the forward thinking Republicans at the time could say they cut taxes. The First round of RIFs took place just as G.H.W. Bush was walking out the door. YOU wanted smaller Government and Less Taxes?...You Got Them! Chew on that this November!

September 26 2010 at 10:07 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

What do they do with the contaminated soil that gets hauled away?

September 24 2010 at 12:32 PM Report abuse +5 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to idodeco2's comment

The soil is burned in specially designed incineration facilities. The same method was used in Times Beach Missouri.(the entire city was bought out by the US government) The EPA oversees the entire process. They come in set up the machinery and when all of the soil is detoxified they take apart the entire facility. Times beach is now a park and animal sanctuary. There is a huge population of deer, wild turkey and other species living there.

September 26 2010 at 11:49 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply