Connecticut Military Base Closing Threatens Environment

The proposed closing of America's oldest submarine base could not only rob the area of a vital economic engine but leave the land too contaminated by toxic waste for quick redevelopment, Connecticut authorities say.

GROTON, Conn. — The proposed closing of America's oldest submarine base could not only rob the area of a vital economic engine but leave the land too contaminated by toxic waste for quick redevelopment, Connecticut authorities say.

Worried residents of Groton, Connecticut, where the New London Naval Submarine Base is slated to be shut, can look to the Alameda Naval Air Station in California, where locals said cleanup and redevelopment were slow, expensive and frustrating.

Groton, the largest single base marked for closure, is among 33 major military installations Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recommended for closure in May. A final decision is due later this year.

The base at the mouth of the picturesque Thames River has 29 contaminated spots in need of environmental cleanup, officials say. Pollutants like acids, metals, pesticides and medical waste have poured into the base's land and groundwater over the course of its century-long history.

"That's our major concern," Gina McCarthy, commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection, said of the proposed closing. "We don't think that decision really looks realistically at the contamination of the property from the redevelopment standpoint."


Cleaning up Groton, the self-proclaimed "Submarine Capital of the World," for redevelopment will cost far more than the government estimates, local officials say. The Navy already has spent about $57 million, and the Pentagon has proposed another $23.9 million for Groton's cleanup.

"The big question is who is going to pay for everything that has to be done? That has actually not been resolved," said Paulann Sheets, a member of the Groton town council.

Spokesmen at the Pentagon and the New London Naval Submarine Base could not be reached for comment.


Some contaminated spots on the submarine base have been closed and capped, but they are not clean enough for commercial or residential use, McCarthy said.

"We have a number of sites where their (idea of a) final cleanup is 'We've paved it over, don't go near it,"' she said. "That is not exactly in a condition to be redeveloped."

In California, the Alameda base, located on a scenic island across the bay from San Francisco, shut down in 1997.

Since then, additional contaminants were found on the base, according to Ron Plaseied, the Navy's base closure manager for Alameda. So, like many military bases closed in recent years, Alameda is stuck in a tangle of environmental cleanup.

Many of its buildings, from aircraft hangers to apartments, remain boarded up. Since leaving, the Navy has relinquished a fraction of the territory, putting on hold redevelopment of prime land in one of the hottest U.S. property markets.

"The Navy's required to do the environmental cleanup before they can convey the property, but they need to have the funding," Alameda Mayor Beverly Johnson said. "The problem is that they depend on Congress to get the money."

Plaseied estimates the cleanup bill will be $128 million, in addition to the $200 million already spent. Others say the real costs will be much higher.

Some commercial tenants use Alameda's military buildings, and local officials and the Navy say they are close to a deal to transfer the land and allow fuller redevelopment to begin.

"It takes a long time to make these projects, to really start seeing the positive effects from base closures. We still haven't seen that from Alameda," Johnson said. "It's a little frustrating."


At Groton, local officials still hope to keep the base open. The federal government estimates about 8,460 military and civilian jobs are at stake with the proposed closing; state officials say it could be as many as 31,500 jobs.

Another of Groton's large employers, General Dynamics' Electric Boat, has said it would remain in business if the base closed. But such a closing could affect the number of jobs at Electric Boat, which now has some 11,300 employees.

While the base's waterfront location is breathtaking, the land may be too dirty to join neighboring Mystic, a popular resort, in attracting tourists, officials say.

But new industrial uses might be welcome in a town so dependent on the base that some 40 percent of its school children come from Navy families. Many other residents are military retirees who opted to stay near a base for its health care facilities and discounted shopping.

Sheets said small businesses in particular depend on the base. "They will shrivel up and blow away within six months if we don't have something moving in," he said.

Joseph Quaratella, whose Nautilus Barber Shop is filled with photographs of submarines, has been giving crew cuts to Groton's military staff for 46 years.

"This place is going to be disasterland" if the base closes, he said. "I know I'll lose business. Will it be enough to survive? Who knows?"

(Adam Tanner reported from Alameda, California)

Source: Reuters