Cleanup Delays Bog Down Naval Base Closures

By Sandra I. Erwin

The Navy's backlog of contaminated facilities now stands at nearly 4,000 sites. To expedite this formidable waste removal job, the service is actively recruiting contractors.

Funding to conduct the cleanup, however, has dropped off in recent years-from about $400 million in 1995 to nearly $280 million in 1999. For that reason, the Navy hopes that it can generate enough competition among vendors to push down cleanup costs.

Earlier this year, the Naval Sea Systems Command began "seeking expressions of interest" from industry to assess contractor response. The announcement posted on the command's web site called for firms with "quick reaction capability" to fulfill environmental engineering and remediation services, as well as BRAC compliance support, for naval bases slated for closure. The service has 53 installations with 900 hazardous waste sites in the BRAC cleanup backlog.

Although the Navy does not plan to issue any official proposal requests until later this spring, the idea is to gauge the outlook for future vendor competitions, says an industry source.

The Navy does not want to commit to any contracting strategy until it sees how many contractors are potentially interested in competing, says Naval Sea Systems Command contracting officer William Randolph. The recent announcement seeking industry feedback is designed to "see what the universe of remediation firms" looks like, he says in an interview. If the Navy determines there's "ample competition," then there will be a procurement decision, he says. "We are now in mid-stream."

Shrinking its cleanup expenses also is important to the Navy because the environmental accounts throughout the Defense Department have been on a downturn.

Environmental remediation funding, additionally, competes with other immediate priorities such as fleet readiness and maintenance. A recent study by the National Research Council (NRC) on naval cleanup activities notes the service is "under pressure from Congress" to slash its environmental remediation costs.

The combination of tight budgets and overwhelming waste-removal challenges means the Navy faces some rough seas ahead in its cleanup mission, according to the study.

Contaminants and site conditions at naval facilities are "highly variable," says the NRC report. They contain such recalcitrant compounds as metals, chlorinated solvents, and various organic chemicals. Cleanup efforts, therefore, can be "frustrating, time consuming and expensive."

NRC researchers also assert that, during the last five years, there has been a trend at Navy facilities towards spending more money on cleanup and less on the study phase that precedes cleanup. For the most part, says the report, the "true fiscal requirements of cleanup exceed the budget allocated to the Navy for that purpose." The reason is that most of the technological solutions are expensive, "especially for contaminated sites containing highly recalcitrant compounds."

About two-thirds of the Navy's hazardous waste sites are remediated under a federally mandated process called CERCLA, for Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. NRC agrees with CERCLA critics who claim the process is complicated, lengthy and expensive. The study says it takes more than 10 years to complete remediation of a site under CERCLA.

That leads to another crisis confronting the Navy-the need to close sites more quickly. Pressure to close out sites, says NRC, comes primarily from communities and developers in areas adjacent to BRAC facilities. They are eager to convert the land to other uses. Local citizens, meanwhile, want to maintain the employment levels that existed when the base was active. They are certainly not happy about having to wait 10 years for the cleanup to conclude.

NRC believes the Navy should adopt risk-based cleanup strategies that offer more flexibility. The upshot would be the ability to clean more or less depending on the specific site requirements and the intended future use of the property.

Topics: Navy News, Budget, Safety and Environmental Engineering

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