Hazardous materials, possible unexploded munitions a worry at former base
BRUNSWICK, Maine — Among the legacies left behind at the now-closed Brunswick Naval Air Station, which is currently under redevelopment for commercial and public use, is pollution that lies in the soil and bedrock beneath the 3,200-acre base that could still be the focus of cleanup efforts decades from now.
Gasoline, jet fuel, hazardous waste and possibly the remnants of unexploded munitions, among other contaminants, lie in numerous sites on the former base itself, as well as in former Navy satellite sites in Harpswell and Topsham, according to officials from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. Many of the sites have benefitted from decades of cleanup activities, which to date have resulted in more than 80 percent of the former Navy land being turned over for civilian use.
Since the Navy moved out in May of 2011, the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority has received 1,700 acres of property and brought in 19 new businesses that have created 150 jobs with another 350 planned. The base, now called Brunswick Landing, is home to everything from Monlnlycke Health Care, a medical devices manufacturer, to a new campus associated with Southern Maine Community College, to aircraft manufacturer Kestrel Aviation. MRRA Executive Director Steve Levesque said the redevelopment effort is far ahead of projections hoped for when BNAS closed in 2005 and is progressing more rapidly than most other military facilities that closed at the same time.
Although the cleanup effort will stretch long into the future, according to David Wright, remediation project manager for the Department of Environmental Protection, the DEP counts the former BNAS, which officially closed on May 31, 2011, as one of its success stories.
“The cleanup is still going and will be ongoing for a long time,” he said. “There are some former hazardous waste disposal areas that will frankly never be transferred” out of Navy control.
Wright said that since the entire base is designated as a federal Superfund site, the federal government and the Department of Defense is liable for the environmental cleanup — including reimbursing the DEP for its efforts there. Millions of dollars have been contributed to the effort, including $5 million from the Navy in 2011 alone.
From a land-use perspective, the ongoing cleanup means that some areas will have restrictions on them that eliminate the possibility of certain types of buildings or activities, such as residences, schools and long-term care facilities for the elderly. And as for drilling wells for drinking water, Wright said that’s not likely to happen anytime soon on the former base, if ever, though the base has a closed-loop water system that is impervious to the contaminants.
“The entire base has a groundwater restriction. You can’t drill or extract any of the groundwater,” said Wright. “Those restrictions go with the property when it’s transferred.”
Claudia Sait has been the DEP’s project manager at the former base since 1997. She said the task of cleaning the area for redevelopment is complex and ever-changing as new contaminants are unearthed based on historical records of past activities.
“This is like cleaning up and evaluating a small town that had weapons,” she said. “It is not clear-cut.”
One of the chief concerns is a 78-acre parcel known as the Eastern Plume, at the eastern edge of the former base.
According to data provided by Sait and a local organization called Brunswick Area Citizens for a Safe Environment, there are at least three known contributors to the plume. One is the Orion Street Landfill, which along with an adjacent hazardous materials dump was used for about 20 years beginning in 1955 to dispose of garbage, waste oil, pesticides, solvents, paint, and aircraft and automobile parts.
A decision was made by the Navy and environmental regulators in 1990 to leave the materials in the ground rather than go through the expense and risk of removing them. In 1995, an impervious barrier was installed over and around the landfill, which is designed to keep more groundwater from seeping through it and into the surrounding area.
Another source of the Eastern Plume is a caustic acid pit that was used in the early 1970s to dump acid, transformer oil, battery acid, solvents and paint thinners. Today, a building rests on top of the former pit and the Navy has said that if the building is ever razed, the soil beneath it will have to be evaluated and possibly cleaned.
The third major contributors to the Eastern Plume are a former chemical storage area and a fire training facility where, until 1987, combustible liquids were poured directly onto the ground as part of firefighting training exercises. In the 1990s, considerable efforts to remove the hazardous material included removal of buried drums and other debris, as well as the excavation of up to 10 feet of contaminated soil over a half-acre parcel.
Cleanup of the Eastern Plume continues through the use of an extensive groundwater extraction and treatment system, which was installed in 1995. It involves machinery that sucks in contaminated groundwater, filters it and pumps it back into the ground. Sait said the area in and around the Eastern Plume is subject to constant monitoring in an effort to slow the migration of the contaminants to waterways and nearby homeowners’ wells.
Other areas being cleaned up or investigated include several waste, munitions and mercury disposal sites, a contaminated quarry and former target practice areas, including one where an estimated 43 tons of lead munitions were fired into berms. There are also sites where nuclear weapons were once stored, according to Wright, though most of those areas have been cleared from a radiological standpoint.
Suzanne Johnson, a local attorney and a member of Brunswick Area Citizens for a Safe Environment, said that despite all the known and unknown problems, an aggressive cleanup effort supported by a strong citizen oversight component for the past two decades has reaped major progress.
“This couldn’t have happened without the citizen involvement,” said Johnson. “A lot has gotten done and in terms of the redevelopment, much of the land has been turned over very quickly because we all have worked so closely together. But the reality is that we’re still identifying new sites.
“What people have to remember is that this is a former military base,” she continued. “How do we make sure that people are aware that if they find a shiny silver object on the ground, don’t go out and look at it? It might be a munition. And even today, we probably don’t know the extent of the different chemicals that have been used out there.”
Wright said that with so much work left to be done, the DEP, federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Navy are using a “triage” approach to make the best properties available as soon as possible.
“We’ve focused on areas that we could get transferred quickly,” said Wright. “Those are primarily the clean areas.”
Levesque, executive director of the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, said that though there is clearly contamination at the base that will be an issue for years to come, the base is not unique in terms of properties in Maine that have a history of industrial and commercial use. MRRA is the group overseeing the base’s transition to civilian use.
“How many closed paper mills do we have sitting around? How many closed textile mills? How many fish processors?” he said. “Unfortunately the environmental factors are just something we have to deal with.”
Johnson said she expects the scope of the contamination to change over the coming years for the better, but also possibly for the worse.
“We need to understand that it’s not a static; it’s not a one-time look,” she said. “It’s an evolving process. The key is that we’ve had funding at the federal level to do these things, but as money gets tighter the real question is will there be funding to deal with what we know is there as well as what might be on the horizon. No one can just put this out the back door and shut it and walk away from it.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services