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Closing sub base would mean costly cleanup

The Submarine Base New London in Connecticut is among at least seven military bases proposed for closure this year that are polluted, and the Pentagon has estimated it will cost more than $700 million to clean them.
The U.S. Navy Submarine Base in Groton, Conn., covers 575 acres, including the main entrance seen here. Slfuric acid, torpedo fuel, waste oil and incinerator ash are among the pollutants buried at the site.Bob Child / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

For decades, the land around the Navy’s oldest submarine base was a dumping ground for whatever it needed to dispose of: sulfuric acid, torpedo fuel, waste oil and incinerator ash.

Now the Pentagon has proposed closing the base, leaving a huge swath of land that contains dozens of acres of polluted soil and groundwater, an Associated Press review of more than 1,000 pages of government documents found.

The Submarine Base New London is among at least seven military bases proposed for closure this year that are polluted, and the Pentagon has estimated it will cost more than $700 million to clean them.

Even some areas that already have been cleaned could pose health risks to construction workers and future residents if the Groton base were to close, the military, state and federal environmental documents show.

Although elected officials have promised to fight the base closure, which they estimate could cost Connecticut 31,500 jobs and $2 billion a year in personal income, Groton officials have already starting thinking about what might replace it.

“I know we’ll hear proposals for a waterfront district: parks, hotel, entertainment, condos, retail district and housing,” said Paulann Sheets, a Groton town councilor and environmental attorney.

'Minefield of contamination'
But while the Navy pledges $23.9 million toward cleaning the base it opened as a naval station in 1868, officials said cleanup would only be to industrial standards. State officials fear the money won’t be nearly enough to make the land fit for residential or recreational use.

“That’s not a redevelopment opportunity, that’s a minefield of contamination,” said Gina McCarthy, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The military has a history of shutting down bases and leaving behind contaminated land. Thirty-four bases closed since 1988 are on the Superfund list of worst toxic waste sites, and none is completely cleaned yet.

In its most recent Defense Environmental Programs report, an annual submission to Congress that outlines the Pentagon’s environmental efforts, the Pentagon estimated it would cost more than $700 million to clean the polluted bases proposed for closure.

Otis Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts, where petroleum, solvents and pesticides have contaminated the soil and water, is part of a military compound that requires $538 million in cleanup, according to the report. The Concord, Calif., Naval Weapons Station and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Kittery, Maine, also are heavily polluted.

$57.6 million already spent at Groton
The Navy has already spent $57.6 million cleaning the Groton base. Crews have sealed landfills, cleaned acres of wetlands and hauled away tons of soil contaminated with arsenic, PCBs, and the pesticide DDT.

Some areas, such as a 14,000-gallon battery acid tank buried during World War II, have been cleaned to residential standards, but others have been treated with a combination of cleanup and land-use restrictions that presume the land will never be used for residential development.

A huge landfill containing battery acid and ash, for example, was capped in 1997 after the Navy decided excavation was too expensive, Navy environmental reports show. Today, the landfill is paved over, digging is prohibited and access is restricted.

The base’s waterfront, potentially its most valuable land, also is the most polluted. Elevated levels of cancer-causing chemicals were detected near a solvent-storage building and contractors warned that pregnant women and small children were at risk for lead exposure in the area, according to a 2001 environmental report.

Because the waterfront area is paved and heavily developed, the Navy said there are no immediate health threats. But many Navy reports presume the base will remain in operation, not be opened to development.

EPA emphasizes the potential
Jim Woolford, head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Federal Facilities Restoration & Reuse Office, said a base shutdown could even speed up environmental cleanup.

“The initial reaction is, ’How can we do this?”’ Woolford said. “But there are tremendous success stories of DoD working with the community and developers coming in and transforming these bases, even the ones that were dirty.”

Waterfront cleanup is scheduled to begin in 2008, but the Navy has told the EPA that, because of national security concerns, it will try to avoid full-scale excavation and consider spot-cleaning, containing contamination and restricting access.

“That can be a very low-cost venture, but it doesn’t mean you can ever redevelop that property,” McCarthy said.