Spit-and-Polish Military Looks at Its Own Big Messes

DECIDING which military bases to close may have been the easy part. Cleaning them up and transferring them to local governments and the private sector has proven to be a major challenge.

Since 1988, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission has identified 115 bases that will be closed or consolidated. Spread among 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Midway Island, they include 18 sites on the National Priorities List, better known as Superfund. They also contain hundreds of sites with environmental troubles ranging from asbestos and radioactive waste to unexploded ordnance and spilled jet fuel.

During a meeting here last week, the Defense Environmental Response Task Force, created by Congress to speed up base transfers, discussed the legal and technical problems facing base closures. The group has representatives from the Department of Defense (DOD), General Services Administration, Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Urban Land Institute, as well as representatives from state governments.

Cleanup of hazardous waste has become a major focus of the group. Sherri Goodman, deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security, says the group must decide ``How clean is clean?'' While some of the bases have land-use plans already in place, the group must determine cleanup standards for bases where future uses are not yet known. Ms. Goodman says that cleanup for an industrial park would be less extensive and less costly than if a base were to be used for residential use.

Task force officials believe getting the different branches of the military together in one room to talk about their common problems is helpful. And they appear to be getting a sympathetic ear from the EPA. One EPA staffer said the agency may alter some policies that will allow military lands to be transferred more quickly to the private sector.

Last year, DOD spent $2.03 billion for base closures, almost a quarter of which was spent on environmental cleanup. This year, Congress has appropriated $2.175 billion for base closures, with $462.3 million for environmental restoration.

Congress is now considering a $263 billion spending package for DOD for next year, which includes $5.86 billion for environmental programs.

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