Thursday, January 18, 2007
Gazing from his second story office window on Fort Ord, Michael Houlemard points to a row of three silver vents protruding from the smooth, sand-colored dirt across the street. The vents, which are part of the storm water drainage system, are the only new objects sticking out of the ground on the blank construction site. A steady stream of cars drives by the future site of University Village and onto Highway 1.
More than 12 years after the Army base closed, Fort Ord is still mainly a place motorists pass through to get to somewhere else. Houlemard, who started as executive officer of the Fort Ord Reuse Authority (FORA) in 1997, patiently awaits the day when he will look out at the parking lots of a Best Buy or an REI store. Although turning the former base into a place to live, work and shop has been slow and complex, Houlemard says a land swap in the works will make redevelopment faster and simpler.
FORA is about two months away from getting 3,500 acres from the Army. Unlike past land exchanges, FORA will be responsible for removing munitions from the parcels. Houlemard says it will take FORA about seven years to remove the unexploded artillery while the Army could have taken twice as long.
The Army has spent close to $400 million cleaning up the mess it left.
“Removal of the munitions and explosives is an essential component for the safety of the folks in the region,” Houlemard says. “We want to have control and ownership of the property so we have the ability to complete the base reuse plan and finish the recovery.”
Another plus is that FORA will receive about $93 million up front to complete the cleanup. Currently, the removal of grenades and projectiles is dependant upon what funds the Army receives each year. Once the Environmental Protection Agency clears the land, the feds transfer it to FORA. Under the tentative agreement, the Army will no longer be the middleman: FORA will deal directly with the EPA and state regulators.
The Army has spent close to $400 million to date cleaning up the mess it left on Fort Ord. In 1990, the military base was placed on a list of heavily polluted federal facilities known as Superfund Sites. The Army will continue to manage long-term environmental debacles like aquifers contaminated with trichloroethylene, a cleaning solvent that may cause cancer.
John Chesnutt is a Superfund manager for the EPA. Chesnutt says Fort Ord will be the first Superfund where somebody other than the polluter handles cleanup.
“We strive to get the people responsible for the cleanup to do it,” he says. “While FORA didn’t contaminate the property, we are holding them responsible for conducting the cleanup.”
If the arrangement is successful, it will be a model for other cleanup conveyances on military installations, Chesnutt says. McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento is close to completing a similar agreement while Alameda Naval Air Station is also considering a transfer. “I think it will be something you see a lot more of,” Chesnutt says.
FORA won’t take over the property before March. FORA will be legally bound to remove the munitions to EPA and state standards under the so-called “administrative order on consent,” which is going through a public comment period that ends Jan. 29.
LFR Inc., a San Francisco-based environmental management firm, will supervise the cleanup. LFR will first clean up a strip of land along the eastern border of Seaside because it is closest to residents. FORA will also remove explosives from the Laguna Seca and Parker Flats areas of Fort Ord. Monterey Peninsula College plans to build an officer training center on a portion of the property while Monterey County wants to develop a horse park.
FORA will mainly use mechanical techniques for removing the brush to dig up the munitions, Houlemard says. The authority will conduct controversial controlled burns on habitat land near East Garrison, a mixed-use development off Reservation Road. The burns are praised by some environmentalists for restoring habitat while scorned by those who are sensitive to the smoke.
Houlemard says his daughter has asthma and he is sensitive to the health issues created by the smoke. But he says it would be even more damaging to have an explosive injure a young person wandering through Fort Ord. “To me the highest priority is safety for our own children,” Houlemard says.