Early transfer of former Fort Ord lands could leave civilians stuck with contaminated property.
Thursday, May 20, 1999
Last month, a metal detector-wielding contractor hired by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) swept his instrument across an eight-acre section of former Fort Ord land.
As the EPA''s sophisticated detector shot electric current deep into the earth, the device discovered 17 readings for metal beneath the surface. When the Army later dug up one of those mysterious metal objects, it turned out to be an inert anti-tank rocket.
The discovery created an embarrassing situation for the Army and, say critics, points to the potential problems of an "early transfer" of Fort Ord land to local cities.
"It certainly demonstrates what we''ve been saying all along: that [the Army''s] cleanup is grossly inadequate," says Scott Allen, former chairman of the now-defunct Fort Ord Restoration Advisory Board (RAB). Allen is also an attorney for the Fort Ord Toxics Project, a reuse watchdog group.
The Army had cleaned up the 70-acre parcel of Fritzsche Airfield Phase II and cleared it for early transfer to the city of Marina. An early transfer allows federally owned Superfund sites that pose "no unacceptable risks" to be transferred into civilian hands before the required environmental documentation is complete.
While the rocket found last month was a dummy practice device, the Army can''t say for sure that live explosives aren''t still lurking beneath the surface. The parcel, slated for a posh golf course and resort, contains Ordnance and Explosive (OE) site 34--a former bazooka and rifle grenade practice range.
"Unfortunately with an ordnance area, although we think it''s very safe, it''s difficult to say ''yes, it''s totally safe,''" says Gail Youngblood, Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) environmental coordinator for the Army.
But even in light of the EPA''s recent discovery, the early transfer process is still moving forward. Under the early transfer program, the federal agency/owner is required to sign a number of covenants declaring that all necessary environmental cleanup that has been identified has been completed. Additionally, any possible risks associated with yet-undiscovered contaminants are disclosed.
Congress approved the amendment to Superfund law in 1997 in order to facilitate the timely transfer of safe property into civilian hands. The EPA at the state level and the governor must sign off on the transfer. The Fritzsche Airfield early transfer would be a first for Fort Ord, and the fourth such transfer in the state.
In the draft Finding of Suitability for the Early Transfer (FOSET), the Army documents detection and removal of rockets, TNT and small arms cartridges from the Fritzsche Airfield parcel. Furthermore, the FOSET recommends no further removal action. The FOSET was released in March--a month before the EPA found the practice rocket.
The discovery hasn''t deterred the EPA, the Army or the city of Marina from the early transfer, nor will additional cleanup be required. However, site developers will be required to retain an ordnance expert on-site during excavation. If explosives are found, the Army will be called in for removal.
Still, the Army is making no guarantees concerning the safety of the bazooka range and soon-to-be golf course. It''s also unclear who would be held legally liable if injuries or deaths were to occur due to undetected explosives after the transfer occurs.
Nevertheless, as far as the city of Marina is concerned, the transfer couldn''t come too quickly. The transfer of Fritzsche Airfield, if processed normally, could take another two years. With the early transfer, officials hope to have the parcel in Marina''s hands by July.
"It''s sort of unfortunate that it''s called an ''early transfer,''" says Marina Councilmember Ila Mettee-McCutchon. "Anything being transferred from FORA [Fort Ord Reuse Authority] at this point is late."
The combined delays of FORA foot-dragging and a lawsuit filed by Fort Ord Toxics Project and California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG) against the Army for allegedly sloppy cleanup procedures has left Marina''s economic goals in the lurch. Marina, perhaps the city most impacted by the base closure, has little sales tax revenue and has the lowest transient occupancy tax (TOT) income on the Peninsula, save Sand City.
But some are wondering if economic vitality should come at the possible risk of human life. Some community members, including the Fort Ord Toxics Project and some California State University Monterey Bay students, say the property is not clean and shouldn''t be transferred until it is. The early transfer process, they say, is merely a way to pass the buck of environmental problems created by an Army now intent on getting away with insufficient cleanup.
"We believe it''s unsafe," says Ramon Padilla, a CSUMB student who has gathered about 100 signatures on a petition to stop the early transfer. "They are still finding unexploded ordnance on the site they plan to transfer."
Padilla says he and those who signed his petition are concerned that if the Marina transfer is successful, an early transfer of contaminated land to CSUMB will follow before cleanup is complete.
"[The EPA] found nothing that would endanger lives," counters Mettee-McCutchon. "The Army and the EPA consider it ready to be transferred. In the minds of those who are rational about these things, the property is clean."