KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — German authorities have released an environmental impact assessment that is one of the last bureaucratic hurdles to the start of work on a new U.S. military hospital near Ramstein Air Base.
The assessment is part of a public review process that German authorities said should be finished by mid-January.
“It’s an extended process,” Mark Ray, a spokesman for U.S. Army Europe said, adding that the U.S. is little more than a spectator in a process that is entirely controlled by German authorities.
The hospital project has been largely stalled since late last year, when German environmental groups sued to restore a public review that Germany’s Ministry of Defense waived at the U.S. Army’s request. The Army sought the waiver in order to expedite construction. It wound up delaying it instead.
A German court ruled that the Defense Ministry erred in granting the waiver and that the review should proceed.
As part of that review, German authorities have spent months preparing the environmental impact assessment made public Tuesday.
The assessment, now on display at government buildings in Kaiserslautern, Erbach and Ramstein-Miesenbach, runs more than 1,000 pages, fills eight thick binders and includes dozens of maps and schematics depicting the proposed layout of the hospital and the locations of plants and animals threatened by the structure.
Much of the assessment is composed of various studies conducted by German government organizations and contractors going back to at least 2010. They address such matters as groundwater and soil quality, the presence of plants and animals, and measures to mitigate the massive construction effort’s effects on them.
The assessment also includes input from the German environmental groups that sought release of the report.
Their participation in the process doesn’t mean they might not raise further objections, Ray said.
Karl-Ludwig Kusche, who represents the county of Kaiserslautern as a coordinator for the project, said the hospital could be considered a “massive encroachment” on nature but that steps to mitigate the damage to wildlife are “acceptable.”
Several measure’s to mitigate the project’s environmental impact are recommended in the report. These include the building of boxes and houses for bats and birds, the erection of fences to protect amphibians, the planting of new trees to offset the cutting of roughly 120 acres of woodland, and the removal of hundreds of asbestos-containing bunkers.
Input in the assessement from the Army makes the case that the proposed hospital site — across from Ramstein on a derelict portion of the Army’s Rhine Ordnance Barracks — is the best choice of location.
Military officials have described the $990 million project as a much-needed replacement for the aging Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, erected in the 1950s. That building’s design prevents an overhaul necessary to increase the size of rooms and bring the hospital up to modern standards.
The Pentagon and Congress have gone back and forth for years over plans to renovate or replace the facility, which has treated virtually every servicemember medically evacuated from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Congress approved the plan to build a new medical facility at Rhine Ordnance Barracks in 2010. The new facility would replace both Landstuhl and an Air Force medical clinic at Ramstein. Situated adjacent to the air base, the site would drastically cut transit times for casualties flown into Ramstein, a roughly 20-minute drive from LRMC.
A spokeswoman for Germany’s Federal Building Department said German authorities are already filing for permits to begin species relocation activities that need to happen before tree cutting can start, signaling an expectation that the hospital project will go forward.
Juergen Reincke, a spokesman for Germany’s Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, one of two environmental groups that sued for the public’s right to participate in the environmental review, said his organization was acting as a “lawyer for nature” after responsible authorities — the German MOD in particular — flouted environmental rules.
“At the bottom line, it is about finding compromises,” he said.
The assessment will be available to the public for a month. The German government will hold a public hearing on the project starting Jan. 8, 2014.
Stars and Stripes reporter Marcus Klöckner contributed to this report.