Military Taps Private Sector for Base Cleanup Dozens of military bases have closed in the past 15 years, leaving behind serious pollution problems. Now McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento is trying a new model for privatized cleanup.
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Military Taps Private Sector for Base Cleanup

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Military Taps Private Sector for Base Cleanup

Military Taps Private Sector for Base Cleanup

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Over the last two decades, dozens of military bases have been decommissioned, leaving communities around the country to figure out what to do with the land. Many of the retired bases sit on prime real estate. But more than a hundred of them have some kind of environmental contamination. Some are so bad they've earned a spot on the Environmental Protection Agency's list of Superfund sites.

From member station, KQED, Tamara Keith has the story of a new model for cleaning up. It's being tried at McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento.

TAMARA KEITH: Aside from the occasional small area fenced off with a menacing sign, from the surface, it's hard to tell McClellan Air Force Base is a Superfund site. For more than 50 years, planes came here to be repaired - a process that produced a lot of chemical and even radioactive waste. That waste is now found in the soil and ground water. Since the base shut down in 2001, the Air Force's main job at McClellan has been to clean up its environmental legacy. Steve Mayer is heading cleanup efforts for the Air Force Real Property Agency, and he's anxious to get it done.

Mr. STEVE MAYER (Air Force Real Property Agency): Our mission is not necessarily environmental work. And so the sooner we finish up our operations here and those dollars can go back where they do to support the Air Force mission in general.

KEITH: Traditionally, bases have had to be fully cleaned up before the military could turn over ownership to a local agency or developer, a long, drawn out process. The Air Force is trying something brand new with McClellan, privatizing the cleanup. Mayer is standing in a 62-acre plot near the edge of the base. Slated to become the first base Superfund site in the country handed over to a private developer before cleanup is completed. The developer, McClellan Business Park, figures being in charge of the cleanup will cut redundancy. Alan Hirsch is the company's senior vice president.

ALAN HIRSCH (Senior Vice President, McClellan Business Park): So that you don't dig a hole, take out some dirty materials, put back in clean dirt, then come back in next week, dig up that same hole to put utilities in. But can you create a symbiotic process where all of those integrate with one another?

KEITH: The Air Force is handing over a deed to the land, and it's actually paying $11 million for the cost of the cleanup. The cleanup will still have to meet EPA standards, and the land will eventually house an office park. If this all works, the cleanup of the whole 3,000-acre property in suburban Sacramento could be privatized.

Ms. JEANETTE MUSIL (Deputy Director of Economic Development, Sacramento County): I think it's the future.

KEITH: Jeanette Musil is deputy director of economic development for Sacramento County.

Ms. MUSIL: When you add the private sector who brings with it innovation, creativity and the ability to accept risks, I think that'll move land a lot faster.

KEITH: Moving land faster means more quickly reversing some of the hardships caused when bases closed. Fort Ord, a former army base on the California coast has a similar and much larger privatized cleanup plan being finalized now. Susan Bodine, assistant administrator for EPA's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response, says others are watching what happens in California.

Ms. SUSAN BODINE (Assistant Administrator, Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response): And so the first time you do anything, it's hard. And then once you've done it once, you've created the model for everyone else to follow. So my sense is that there will be a lot more after we've created the model for these two California sites.

KEITH: There are 34 retired bases on the Superfund list. Property the military no longer wants, and whose economic potential communities around the country would like to reclaim.

For NPR News, I'm Tamara Keith in Sacramento.

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