Cleanup considered key to reuse of shuttered bases

The highly anticipated Defense Department base realignment and closure (BRAC) list, expected to be released tomorrow, will yield winners and losers. But the losers might not be so bad off. Many states and lawmakers fear an economic blow as the Pentagon plans to close, scale down or realign some of its 425 major domestic bases to save billions of dollars a year. While that fear can be valid, the situation is “far from being the absolute death for these communities,” said Chris Hellman, an analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.

The highly anticipated Defense Department base realignment and closure (BRAC) list, expected to be released tomorrow, will yield winners and losers.

But the losers might not be so bad off.

Many states and lawmakers fear an economic blow as the Pentagon plans to close, scale down or realign some of its 425 major domestic bases to save billions of dollars a year. While that fear can be valid, the situation is “far from being the absolute death for these communities,” said Chris Hellman, an analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington.

In many cases, he said, a closed facility becomes an economic driver. Communities panic because success does not come overnight and because there is no guarantee that they will become “a success story,” Hellman added. “Even if you know that the community is going to recover, it does not mean that you as an individual will recover and get one of the new jobs.”

Some members of Congress are gearing up to use the BRAC 2005 round to draw attention to the necessity for environmental cleanup, a showstopper in several communities affected by previous base closures. If this BRAC batch is approached properly, “it could help a number of communities,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.).

“We are hopeful that this round of activity is going to raise the profile of the necessity for cleanup. This could be one of the best five months of this issue.”

Base closure could be traumatic for communities, he said. “I expect that communities will resist change. They do not know what they are stuck with,” he said. Blumenauer is urging his fellow lawmakers and the Department of Defense (DoD) to focus on how the services can be better partners in environmental cleanup.

“The Defense Department can do it right. They have amazingly skilled people, and Congress needs to work with them to make it happen,” he said. If the Pentagon does not step up its efforts and standards to clean bases, it will “run into a political buzz saw” that will ultimately impede its job in national security, Blumenauer warned.

Members of Congress will publicly try to save the bases in their districts, but privately they will be planning for closings, said Aimee Houghton, the associate director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight. Her major concern in this round of closures is that Pentagon officials will try to “get out of their cleanup responsibilities,” she said.

Federal government jobs tend to offer above-average pay and benefits compared to private industry. Communities do “not enjoy the prospect of losing the base even if you can show that time and diligence can bring success,” he said.

Revitalizing a community affected by a BRAC round is not a small feat. It often takes more than a decade and millions of dollars in upfront investments.

The Government Accountability Office found that most communities have recovered or are recovering from the impact of base closures. “DoD data show that almost 85 percent of local DoD civilian jobs that were lost on bases as a result of realignments and closures have been replaced through development of the properties,” GAO said in a May 3 statement before the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission. The redevelopment of base property is viewed as an important component of economic recovery in communities affected by BRAC, according to the GAO.

Environmental cleanup constraints have delayed and continue to delay the armed services from rapidly transferring unneeded BRAC property. According to the GAO, as of September 2004 about 72 percent (about 364,000 acres) of the approximately 504,000 acres of unneeded property from the previous four BRAC rounds (1988, 1991, 1993 and 1995) had been transferred to other federal and nonfederal entities. About 140,000 acres have not yet been transferred, primarily because of delays resulting from requirements that the Defense Department is obligated to address to ensure that former base property is cleaned up to a level sufficiently safe for its intended reuse.

“Unexploded ordnance is the most underfunded and largest liability” for the Defense Department, Houghton said. Identifying, assessing and cleaning unexploded ordnance around the country at this point could cost up to $35 billion, but Congress funds about $106 million annually to address the problem. At this rate it could take up to 330 years to clean up formerly used defense sites, Blumenauer said in an address to an environmental symposium earlier this year.

“The number of times that the military has not been forthright about the environmental status of property is staggering,” Houghton said at a Capitol Hill briefing Tuesday on lessons learned from previous base closures and realignments.

In many cases it takes years for a base to land in the hands of the community. For example, Fort Sheridan in Illinois was part of the 1988 BRAC round, but it only closed in 1993, said David Limardi, city manager of Highland Park, Ill. The city, more than 10 years later, is still working on its redevelopment. “Not much worked well for us,” Limardi said. “The Army takes land, and it is not in their mindset to dispose of land.”

Based on his experience with Fort Sheridan, he said, it was imperative not to leave too much time between the closing announcement and actual planning. If the base is to be closed it should be closed completely and not just parts of it because that hinders the redevelopment, he added.

Success stories of communities rebounding from BRAC are the Charleston, S.C., naval shipyard and Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. “I am not saying that this is guaranteed and not every community will rebound,” Hellman said. The Philadelphia shipyard, for example, was closed more than 10 years ago and still hasn’t been redeveloped, he added.

Communities will have no excuse if they do not know how to respond should they be a target of BRAC, said Jack Spencer, a defense and national-security-policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “The role of the Defense Department is to provide security, not to provide jobs for Americans,” he said. “There are plenty of agencies to stick their nose in the economic well-being of Americans.”

He said members of Congress should support the BRAC list, work with their communities and “come out with a well-thought-out economic-revitalization plan.” If specific members of Congress think that a base closure was a big mistake, “they should do so,” he added. But once all concerns are addressed, then the commission’s decision needs to be supported, he said.

Once the Pentagon issues its BRAC list, the independent BRAC Commission must review the recommendations and submit a report with recommendations to the president for his acceptance or rejection of them in their entirety by Sept. 8. Subsequently, the Congress must take a final action to accept or reject the recommendations in their entirety later this year.

This year’s round of base closings will be less about incurring savings than it was in the past. The “list facilitates jointness. There is a demonstrable effort to force the services to work together onto the same bases. It puts a premium on training facilities,” Spencer said. “This [BRAC] has to be about building an infrastructure to creating a environment that is conducive to 21 century warfare.” Therefore, outdated bases, those with functions that are duplicated elsewhere, could be targeted this year he said.