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Bases Need to Enlist Community Efforts : Military Should Welcome Civilian Participation, Oversight in Toxic-Waste Cleanups

With the Cold War over, one of the legacies of a widespread military presence in California is the need to clean up hazardous waste at various military installations. In Orange County, for example, the problem is central to any thinking about the future of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station for eventual conversion to civilian use. In San Diego, optimism about the development of the Naval Training Center has faded with the realization of the laundry list of issues that includes concerns about environmental hazards.

An important question in undertaking such cleanups is the matter of civilian participation and oversight. The Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station has recently formed a 27-member citizens committee designed to get the community involved in its process. The station is not on any list of bases slated for closure, but the Navy has been looking into contamination at the base since shortly after Congress passed SuperFund hazardous waste cleanup legislation in 1980. The base contamination at one spot, for example, arose from the construction of rocket boosters for the Apollo and Skylab missions between 1963 and 1974 by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Navy officials say that there are about 70 sites on the 5,000-acre base where paint, solvents and chemicals were dumped over the years. Of particular concern are two landfills. The cost is estimated at $11 million, and the Navy says it could take until 2005 to do the work.

Base spokesman Richard Williamson asserts that the environment is currently safe. But it was also encouraging that he said that “if any cleanup actions have to be taken, then it is even more critical that the community in the immediate area be fully briefed on what’s there and on the alternatives for action.” This kind of involvement makes for constructive community relations, and can make useful civilian expertise available to the task.

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