Projects defunded for border wall include buildings with 'life safety violations,' hazmat concerns
By AARON GREGG AND PAUL SONNE | The Washington Post | Published: September 7, 2019
The U.S. Navy has been forced to stand down on construction projects meant to fix "life safety violations" and fire risks at dilapidated ship maintenance buildings and hazardous materials warehouses in Virginia after funds were diverted to pay for President Donald Trump's border wall.
The pending construction projects at Norfolk Navy Shipyard are among 127 that the Pentagon has defunded to free up $3.6 billion in funding for fences and barriers on the southern border with Mexico using emergency powers.
One of the military facilities - a 1957 structure on the Portsmouth, Virginia, shipyard known as "Building #510″ - had been cited for numerous "life safety violations" that threatened the well-being of hundreds of workers if not heavily renovated, the Navy warned in its budget request to Congress last year.
The building has been labeled a "high risk environment," largely due to fire safety concerns. As of last year it had no sprinkler protection, inadequate fire alarm systems and not enough exits. Excessive heat and humidity inside have caused equipment problems despite a 60-ton portable HVAC system brought in to clear the air, according to Navy budget documents.
To compensate for the risk of fire, the Navy had been reassigning workers to staff "roving fire watches" around the clock, seven days a week. The budget request sought to revamp the building, including relocating personnel overseeing nuclear containment and repairing Navy life rafts from an even more dangerous building.
If the building isn't replaced, the Navy wrote in its 2018 request, "approximately 330 personnel, working more than 256,000 manhours annually will remain in a high risk environment, with continuing significant rework, high stress, and additional operating costs due to inadequate working environment." The Navy received $26 million from Congress for a construction project that would have upgraded the building, only to see that funding taken away to pay for Trump's border wall project.
The project is one of eight military construction projects in Maryland and Virginia that will lose $155 million in funding being diverted to construct fencing and barriers along the southern border.
The episode highlights how long-neglected military facilities that suffered under the sequestration-induced budget restrictions are now being buffeted by a different political headwind.
The defunded projects include a Maryland child-care facility for soldiers' children, Virginia warehouses designed to hold hazardous materials and a secure facility for classified cyberwarfare operations. They are among 127 military construction projects across 23 states, three U.S. territories and 20 countries that have been sidelined to pay for fencing and barriers on the border with Mexico. Shooting ranges, airfields, drone facilities, schools, a missile field and a treatment center for working dogs are among the projects that have seen their funding rescinded.
Members of Congress representing Maryland and Virginia said the diversion of funds will hurt U.S. national security.
"I'm deeply concerned about President Trump's plan to pull funding from critical national security projects - including millions of dollars from important projects in Virginia - so he can build his border wall," Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said in a statement. His state will lose an estimated $89 million in funded projects to pay for the wall effort, making it one of the most affected.
Trump declared a national emergency in mid-February after Congress refused to give him the sum he wanted for border barrier construction. An obscure U.S. Code section governing the military allows the defense secretary, in the event of a national emergency requiring the use of the armed forces, to carry out construction projects in support of those troops without approval from Congress. The statute permits the defense secretary to take money that Congress has given the Pentagon for other military projects that have yet to start contracting.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday determined that 11 border barrier projects proposed by the Department of Homeland Security would support troops deployed to the border, and authorized the Pentagon to divert $3.6 billion from 127 military projects to finance them. On the campaign trail, Trump regularly said Mexico would pay for his planned wall along the southern border.
For the defunded projects to proceed, Congress must once again appropriate funds for them. Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill broadly support "backfilling" the $3.6 billion worth of projects, and the Republican-led Senate has included a provision to do so in its version of the annual defense policy bill. Democrats, however, have balked at the suggestion, saying Trump's action flies in the face of Congress's constitutionally mandated power of the purse. Democratic lawmakers, including Kaine, have argued that "backfilling" the projects would set a precedent allowing any future president to do an end run around Congress when confronted with funding he or she deems insufficient.
Top Pentagon officials say they are committed to making sure the defunded projects are still completed, and say they will work with Congress to ensure that the funding for the projects is replenished. Still, they have admitted there is no guarantee the funding will be forthcoming.
The Portsmouth ship repair facility is part of the Norfolk Navy Shipyard, the U.S. Navy's oldest shipyard, where workers repair and build naval vessels ranging from submarines to aircraft carriers. Among other activities, federal workers and contractors there are responsible for maintaining nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines, as well as disposing of the radioactive waste they generate. The shipyard processed approximately 8,000 cubic feet of radioactive solid waste from nuclear submarines between 2013 and 2017, according to a recent report from the Energy Department.
But the infrastructure supporting the U.S. military's nuclear waste disposal efforts has crumbled in recent decades under successive waves of budget restrictions. In some cases, that work has been carried out using antiquated 40-year-old pipes, valves and tanks, according to a 2011 budget document.
Other projects that have been sidelined in favor of the border wall include $41 million for a pair of "non-combustible hazardous materials warehouses" at the Norfolk shipyard. One of the warehouses was to include a new storage shed for gas cylinders; according to Navy budget documents, the existing one is too small and doesn't have the necessary fire safety systems.
The Norfolk warehouses currently being used to store hazardous materials "are World War II-era structures that are inefficient and not designed for HAZMAT warehouse operations," Navy officials wrote.
"If this project is not provided, [the Defense Department] will continue storing hazardous materials in non-conforming storage facilities that do not meet current life safety/fire safety code requirements," Defense officials told members of Congress in 2018.
Defense Department public affairs representatives did not respond to questions about the current status of the shipyard buildings, or whether the problems had been fixed.
Another project that is to be defunded to pay for the border wall is a $10 million cyber operations facility, planned for Joint Base Langley-Eustis, in Hampton Roads, Virginia.
According to 2018 budget documents, the construction project is meant to create a Secure Compartmentalized Information Facility, or SCIF, a name commonly used to describe areas of U.S. government buildings designed for handling classified material. The facility is to replace a temporary leased one currently being used by the Air Force's 185th Cyberspace Operations Squadron, a cyberwarfare division reporting to U.S. Cyber Command. A recent assessment found that the unit needs a new facility to meet its full potential.
A 2018 Air Force budget document stated that continuing use of the leased facility "is costly and represents an enhanced security risk."As of Friday it was still leasing a facility, an Air Force public affairs representative said.
Military construction projects in Maryland took a slightly smaller economic hit, with a total of $66.5 million in funds deferred. Maryland Reps. Jamie Raskin and C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, both Democrats, said in published statements that the funding decision would inconvenience U.S. troops.
"This is blatantly stealing billions from crucial projects that directly benefit our military families, their quality of life and troop readiness," Ruppersberger said.
Defunded projects in Maryland include $16.5 million from an unspecified project called "Cantonment Area Roads" at Fort Meade, which houses the headquarters of the National Security Agency. The border wall project will take $50 million from Joint Base Andrews, a military base in suburban Maryland eight miles from the D.C. border. Construction projects put on hold there include a planned cargo pad for hazardous materials, a designated training facility for U.S. service members trained to defuse and dispose of bombs, and a $13 million child development facility.