The Defense Department has estimated it will spend $7.3 billion for environmental activities at bases that are scheduled to be closed. But these costs are likely to continue to increase.
The 2005 Base Closing and Realignment Commission predicted that additional environmental restoration costs for the Pentagon’s 33 major proposed closings will cost another nearly half billion dollars.
The environmental requirements for realigning and closing military installations include restoration activities, National Environmental Policy Act property re-use and transfer documentation, and cultural and natural resource considerations.
To deal with the environmental requirements related to closing any military installation, it is critical to take an inventory of the specific issues affecting that particular location. In the past, this due-diligence approach often has not been used, which led to assumptions and incomplete information that yielded important — and expensive — omissions in the initial environmental cleanup process.
For example, most organizations tend to focus on unexploded ordnance when addressing the closing of a military installation. While this is an important consideration, other problems tend to be overlooked, such as asbestos or contaminated groundwater.
In previous BRAC closings, lessons have been learned the hard way. Tom Nielsen, president of ESI Energy Systems and a past BRAC task force member, says that several closings in California during the 1990s suffered from environmental shortsightedness. Citizen interest groups didn’t realize that the property they were receiving would have some important, long-term environmental issues to address.
“They expected this pristine property,” said Nielsen. “Everyone wanted to start populating the property with businesses and houses.” But, between inadequate environmental cleanup and unrealistic expectations, these properties “were an economic non-starter,” he said. “This has created an anecdotal view that military properties are too hard to use,” added Nielsen. “It gave people the wrong idea.”
When government, military and civilian entities do their homework at the beginning of the process, they can save valuable time and resources as key information is discovered, shared and studied before the actual work begins.
This base-closing environmental preparation, or homework, can be broken down into three key principles:
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Find what has already been done in terms of environmental studies and information for the location in question. Military bases and local governments have archives of environmental studies and even information on environmental issues that already have been noted. Conduct a literature review and look at the existing documentation to help clarify the big picture.
Know what the installation’s re-use can be. Depending on how the base was used, long-term environmental considerations will take time and money, and may even limit how the property can be used for years to come. The re-use of these lands is varied; it does not all have to be ready for immediate construction of homes or schools. Nielsen emphasized that the basic goal should be to get the land to a point where it is right for normal, native species of animals and plants before it was converted to military use.
Create an inventory. Out of that initial literature review, build a checklist of the environmental issues that are already documented. Identify areas that may need additional study. At this point, it is important to focus only on the big picture and avoid getting bogged down in the details.
Government agencies, military officials, and civilian and community groups must consult with each other to share information. In the past, clashing agendas between government and redevelopment groups have led to heated battles that accomplished nothing more than expense and delay. Collaboration avoids wasteful duplication. “Today’s closing is a ramp-up for tomorrow’s closing,” says Nielsen. “There will always be another one, and we have to come back prepared.”
Accurate and timely information is usually the first casualty of inadequate coordination. For both the public interest and government oversight considerations, joining forces with civilian proponents to coordinate efforts and disseminate information helps to maintain focus on the project’s direction and progress.
The reality of base closings is that they take years. In the meantime, military personnel rotate out every few years, hampering any continuity in the environmental cleanup process. This is where the process often falls into the trap of reinventing the wheel.
The best solution to this continuity problem is to retain a cradle-to-grave environmental consultant who knows the issues and the process—and who isn’t going anywhere.
Industry observers expect that the bulk of BRAC-related environmental work will fall to contractors and will be managed in one of two general categories. One will be traditional defense contracts, which are provided through the Army Corps of Engineers or through branch-specific organizations.
Another option will be local installation contracts, which generally are handled by support organizations, such as the General Services Administration, or through the contracts operation of the installation in question.
John Gifford is vice president of environmental and strategic programs for ITS Corporation, an engineering and consulting firm in Oxnard, Calif.