San Diego Union-Tribune
Cleanup costs stall plans for old bases
Shortage of funding delays conversion of military sites
By DANA WILKIE
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON -- San Diego's Naval Training Center fell victim to
Pentagon budget cuts more than eight years ago, but its transformation into a
waterfront complex of hotels, homes, offices and parks hit a snag recently
when the Navy ran headlong into a reality that is holding up the redevelopment of bases up and down California: the high cost of cleaning up
Most of the NTC is now in city hands, and the California Coastal
Commission last week gave the waterfront complex its blessing. But there
remains the issue of a polluted boat channel that city officials said the Navy
may not want to spend the money to clean.
President Bush wants to cut the budget for cleaning closed bases by more
than a third, yet military property throughout the state stands idle because
there is not enough federal money to get rid of jet fuel, nuclear material and
other toxic substances.
Now that Bush wants to consider more base closings in 2003, Democrats
and Republicans in Congress warn that he won't have their support unless
there is more money to clean those already shut.
"My message to (the Bush administration) is, don't give us half-hearted
support for (cleaning bases) and then announce yet another (round of)
closures," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.
She called the base-cleaning effort "a miserable failure that a lot of us warned
Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, who sides with the military on most issues,
complained that the Pentagon has yet to rid itself of the 29 California bases
"My suggestion is to complete the (four rounds of base) closures they've
already started before they do a fifth one," he said.
This month, the Pentagon proposed that an independent commission meet in
2003 to consider military base closures and consolidations. The administration says the United States has about 25 percent more bases than it needs, costing taxpayers about $3.5 billion a year.
After operating for 75 years as a boot camp for recruits, the Naval Training
Center was ordered closed in 1993. It shut its doors in 1997.
Unlike military installations where jet fuel and nuclear material had caused
pollution, the center's problems were relatively benign: Underground gas tanks had leaked into the soil, dry-cleaning solvents had contaminated part of the camp, and heavy metals and pesticides have polluted a boat channel that
bisects the property, and where the city wants to build a walkway.
Most of the pollution is being cleaned, but the channel remains an issue.
"We're starting to encounter problems now because the Navy would just like
to turn it over to us without cleaning it up, and we don't want to take any
property that hasn't been cleaned," said Maureen Ostrye, the San Diego
Redevelopment Agency's project manager for the NTC.
"I think they're starting to understand how expensive this really is, (cleaning)
all these bases."
A Navy spokeswoman said the Navy promises to be environmentally
responsible about the boat channel, while Deputy City Attorney Rick
Duvernay said he was optimistic San Diego would work out a cooperative
solution to the pollution. He said the pollution might also have been caused by
the San Diego Unified Port District or the Marine Corps Recruit Depot.
Under federal law, the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force must clean
pollution at closed bases, if they were responsible for it, before turning the
property over to local authorities. That means getting federal money.
For years, politicians and communities have warned Washington that there
would be considerable delays in converting military property unless Congress
sent more money to clean up pollution. The Department of Defense spent
$356 million to clean closed bases in fiscal 2000, and $770 million the
Bush wants to spend $491 million for the coming fiscal year. Amy Call, a
spokeswoman with Bush's budget office, said that because cleaning bases is a long-term project, "this (money) is not necessarily meant to clean up all the
sites in one year."
But state environmental officials said base-cleaning costs have grown faster
than the Defense Department predicted, because new cleaning technologies
are expensive, labor costs have grown dramatically and defense officials who
need money for other projects sometimes take it from clean-up funds.
At El Toro Marine Corps Air Station north of San Diego, a potentially
harmful chemical called perchlorate was discovered in the ground water
beneath the base. At Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato, which was closed
25 years ago, leaking methane gas is just the latest environmental problem.
The $491 million that Bush would spend next year would barely cover the
cost to clean McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who is chairwoman of a military construction
subcommittee, this month held a hearing on the issue. Her office estimates that in California, the Pentagon has spent about $2.5 billion to clean up closed sites, with at least another $2.5 billion needed.
"I can assure you it's not enough," said Jim Spagnole, an assistant secretary
with the California Environmental Protection Agency, who said very few
closed bases in California have been completely cleaned.