UXOs at Closing U.S. Bases


Aug 1, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on August 1, 2005.

Some of the 33 major military installations around the United States recommended for closure by the Defense Department may contain unexploded bombs, tank and artillery shells and other dangerous munitions that will need to be cleaned up under a costly and time-consuming process.

While the Pentagon hasn't announced how much unexploded munitions it estimates are at any of the 33 bases it wants to shut down, more than half the acreage at major Army bases closed since the end of the Cold War contains unexploded ordnance.

Even before the new round of proposed military base closures was announced May 13, the Pentagon estimated that the cleanup of unexploded munitions at bases already closed since the end of the Cold War would cost about $14 billion.

The Government Accountability Office concluded that the costs would be much higher, amounting to $100 billion or more. Either way, the combination of old and new sites to be shut down under the 2005 round of closings could take decades to clean up and transfer if the work proceeds at the current rate.

How could the cleanup of unexploded munitions be accelerated with the least impact on the estimated savings from base closings?

A RAND Corporation study we conducted and issued earlier this year said one way would be for Congress and the Defense Department to lift the burdens of cleanup and transfer of closed military bases from the individual armed services and the Defense Department. We said one way this could be accomplished would be for Congress to charter a nonprofit government corporation to manage the process of base cleanup and land transfer.

Failing to diffuse the risk from these unexploded munitions will make it impossible for much of the land at closed military installations containing the unexploded ordnance to be transferred and then reused for civilian purposes that could help replace jobs lost by the base closures.

The Defense Department explicitly excludes the cost of cleaning up unexploded munitions and hazardous chemicals from its estimates of the expenses involved in base closings, saying such costs would be incurred at some point anyway. However, the base closing process likely requires the cleanup to take place much sooner, reducing near-term saving from the closure of any base containing unexploded ordnance and raising cleanup costs.

The problem of unexploded munitions is widespread. Every Defense Department installation where the military has trained with live weapons has areas littered with unexploded ordnance. This is because 3 to 10 percent of munitions launched during training and in battle fail to detonate, according to the Defense Science Board.

Unfortunately, these munitions remain live and deadly, and are prone to explode if moved. In addition, the chemicals and heavy metals in the unexploded ordnance can contaminate drinking water supplies of nearby communities.

The new base cleanup corporation that the RAND study says should be considered would be similar to the Resolution Trust Corporation, which Congress established in 1989 to disburse assets and liabilities — including environmentally contaminated property — acquired as a result of the savings and loan association failures of the 1980s. The base cleanup and transfer corporation could be built around a core group with expertise in real estate, community development, finance and environmental remediation.

The Resolution Trust Corporation transferred more than $400 billion in assets — at a cost of just 22 percent of that total — and disbanded when it had successfully completed its job in six years. It succeeded because it was designed specifically for the purpose of transferring assets from the government back to the public, and its staff had the expertise in financial and real estate management necessary to accomplish these tasks.

Plans to clean up unexploded munitions generally must be approved by federal, state, and local authorities. In addition, potential land recipients want liability protection against future accidents involving unexploded munitions that are inadvertently left behind. But today, vast stretches of prime real estate at closed bases continue to sit idle primarily because the involved government agencies and potential new landowners can't agree on how to solve the problem of unexploded munitions.

It's no surprise that the military does not have expertise in real estate deals. Most of the tasks associated with converting a former military base to civilian uses bear little relation to the war-fighting and national defense missions of the U.S. military.

Once the soldiers have moved out and the armed services have reclaimed all the equipment they can reuse elsewhere, base conversion requires expertise primarily in property law, real estate sales, environmental remediation, and economic redevelopment. These tasks are a distraction from the more pressing military readiness tasks, especially during wartime.

If past experience is any guide, the presence of unexploded munitions on a closed base can often grind the land transfer process to a halt. Our research, based on a survey of Army bases closed since 1988, indicates that more than 60 percent of land at bases that are free of unexploded munitions has been deeded to new users. In contrast, only about 10 percent of land containing unexploded munitions has been successfully transferred.

A new organization that could effectively carry out the new assignment of cleaning up unexploded munitions so former military bases could be used for civilian purposes would benefit the military, communities near abandoned military installations, workers in search of jobs, and the environment. The idea of creating a government corporation for this job deserves careful consideration as the base closing process continues.

“Outside View” © 2005 United Press International

Debra Knopman is a vice president and director of the Infrastructure, Safety and Environment division at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit organization that seeks solutions to some of the world's most pressing problems. Jacqueline MacDonald an adjunct senior engineer at RAND and currently a Ph.D. candidate at Carnegie Mellon University.

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