Washington — The $33 billion MX missile system, which will reportedly dwarf the Egyptian pyramids and Great Wall of China as a construction project, is expected to damage the environment but not wreak havoc with it, according to Air Force Undersecretary Antonia Handler Chayes.
And that view, she says, is reinforced by the draft Environment Impact Statement (EIS) that the Air Force released Dec. 17 on the controversial missile system designed to counter soviet ability to destroy the nation's Minuteman and Titan missiles in a first strike.
"The overall impression I would like to leave, and one which the EIS supports , is that while predicted MX impacts are not negligible, they certainly are manageable," says Ms. Chayes, a former Boston lawyer.
The Air Force hopes to deploy some 200 MX missiles in the Great Basin region of Nevada and Utah. But it is also considering an alternative basing area in the southern high plains of Texas and New Mexico. Deployment of the missiles in both regions, a concept known as "split basing" also is under consideration.
Unlike the silo-based Minuteman and Titan missiles, the positions of which are presumably targeted by their increasingly accurate and plentiful Soviet counterparts, the MX is a mobile system designed to conceal the location of its strategic weaponry.
The Air Forces plans to shuttle the 71-foot- long missiles (that can deliver 10 nuclear warheads some 6,000 miles) among a network of 4,600 steel and concrete shelters on huge, 26-wheeled transporters.
President-elect Ronald Reagan's defense advisers have serious reservations about the proposed system. Noting that all 200 MX missiles with not be on alert until 1989 and that lawsuits over basing proposals could delay its completion, Reagan defense advisers are inclining more and more toward a scheme that calls for shuttling Minuteman and MX missiles among a vastly increased number of silos at existing missile fields. Many of his advisers are known to feel that the MX project smacks of a "Maginot Line mentality."
consideration may well be given to deploying the MX at sea, defense analysts here believe. Writing in the National Review recently, retired Navy Capt. John Draim insists that it can be launched simply from "any body of water deep enough to float a rocket vertically." And the adds that the US hsa ample experience of performing such floating launches. Warships would simply slip the missile over the side and fire it, he declares.
Meanwhile, the outgoing Carter administration has scheduled construction of the vast system to begin in early 1982 and continue for some eight years. During that time, the project would consume an estimated 1.5 million tons of cement, 400,000 tons of steel, and up to 130,000 acre-feet of water.
A project of this size inevitably will inflict environmental damage, the EIS concedes. If all approved MX groundwater applications are utilized in the Nevada-Utah basing area, it states, a lowering of groundwater during construction can be expected. "This could cause reduced spring flows, interference with existing wells, reduction of regional groundwater flow and water quality, and even land subsidence."
Undersecretary Chayes says that in both the Nevada-Utah and Texas-New Mexico basing regions "we expect to acquire water following a decision by the state water engineers . . . through a combination of purchase of existing water rights and acquisition of unappropriated water."
She adds that "mitigations" at operating bases, of which there are two in the preferred Nevada-Utah region (Coyote Spring Valley, Nev., and Milford, Utah), consist of conservation, recycling, and piping water from areas of relative abundance.
According to the EIS, construction dust in Nevada-utah could interfere with views from Cedar Breaks and Zion National Parks, Lehman Caves National Monument, Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and the proposed Great Basin National Park.
Some 160,000 acres of native vegetation would be stripped away if the system is based in Nevada-Utah, and natural recovery is not expected during the lifetime of the project. MX deployment in Texas-New Mexico would affect 150,000 acres of cropland and intensively grazed rangeland. The EIS also estimates that the desert tortoise and sage grouse would suffer severely from construction of the system in Nevada-Utah, as would archaeological and historical resources such as Indian shrines, cemeteries, and battlegrounds. "MX construction would compromise key wilderness qualities of naturalness and solitude," it adds, in reference to the preferred basing region.
The EIS goes on to point out that the MX system and its associated projects could create 77,000 new jobs in the Nevada-Utah basing region, bring in an estimated $1.2 billion in earnings in 1986, and provide the area with 7,000 miles of new roads.
"While the impacts may appear severe when viewed from the perspective of a little developed area of the country," says Undersecretary Chayes.
She points out that not all MX impacts are negative: "The increased revenue, employment opportunities, expanded road system, and water resource development offer real possibilities fro economic growth."