The Bad Tenant

When the Navy abandoned ship at the Dallas Naval Air Station, it left an expensive mess behind

Inside offices at the 60-year-old Dallas Naval Air Station, insulation and tiles dangle from holes in the ceilings of buildings ruined from years of neglect. Books, old manuals, papers, overturned desks and obsolete equipment clutter unused offices. Yellowed directives from the 1990s are tacked to fallen bulletin boards. From the looks of it, the Navy directed the men and women of the high seas to rifle the offices, kill the power and run for the nearest ships.

Over on the airfield, the basement of a hulking World War II-era airplane hangar is filled with water. The hangar, which the city hoped to preserve as a piece of history, overlooks the airfield where half-century-old metal tie-downs for long-gone propeller airplanes remain where they were planted in concrete more than a half-century ago.

Hangar offices emblazoned with squadron emblems and slogans such as "pride and professionalism" are a shambles, strewn with flotsam left by Navy personnel. The hangar itself looks rusty and neglected. In the back of the building, a flight of stairs leads to a basement door propped open wide. It's difficult to see exactly what holds the door open because filthy water nearly fills the staircase, covering the basement doorway.

The city hopes to preserve this World War II-era hangar as a historical site at the former Dallas Naval Air Station, but right now you could probably maneuver a submarine in the heavily flooded basement. The city claims that years ago the Navy turned off the power and the sump pumps to this and other buildings on the air station.
Mark Graham
The city hopes to preserve this World War II-era hangar as a historical site at the former Dallas Naval Air Station, but right now you could probably maneuver a submarine in the heavily flooded basement. The city claims that years ago the Navy turned off the power and the sump pumps to this and other buildings on the air station.
This ragged windsock on the runway at the abandoned Dallas Naval Air Station is probably among the less expensive items the city will have to replace now that the Navy is gone.
Mark Graham
This ragged windsock on the runway at the abandoned Dallas Naval Air Station is probably among the less expensive items the city will have to replace now that the Navy is gone.

"This is what happens when you turn off the power to a building and all of a sudden the pump system cannot operate," says Dave Howe, an assistant city attorney. "All the equipment, including all the equipment that would have run the building, will have to be completely ripped out and replaced."

The Navy's 8,000-foot concrete and asphalt runway just off of Mountain Creek Lake (closed to fishing for food because of pollution blamed on the Navy) appears to be in pretty good shape. The city hoped to someday use the runway and aircraft buildings, maybe renting them to a commercial aviation concern for aircraft maintenance.

But the runway is a problem, too. Before the Navy left this air station in the southwest corner of Dallas, somebody cut the electrical wires to the banks of lights staggered far out into the lake. No one from the city knows for sure where the Navy cut the lines or why, and they don't know if it's possible to repair the damage or how much it would cost. Even if it had lights, the runway needs maintenance and will probably be blocked and useless for years during lengthy cleanup operations, a city official says.

Before it abandoned the station, the Navy gave 75 acres, considered the most well-developed, well-maintained and most valuable chunk, to the Army and Marines. Everywhere else, the Navy killed power to heaters, lights and basement water pumps. The city didn't know it at the time, but on the day the Navy ceremoniously closed the station in 1998, many structures were already in bad shape. The Navy, it turned out, started neglecting buildings as early as 1993 or as soon as it learned it would be leaving. The Navy estimated the property and improvements to be worth about $300 million at that time. Today, even buildings that may have been salvageable before the Navy abandoned them will now probably need to be leveled because they've subsequently flooded or caved in, Howe says.

The Navy's damaged buildings above ground are bad news, but they're not even the worst, Howe says. The Navy operated on the station from about 1942 until 1998, which included the environmentally disastrous decades of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and most of the 1970s. The standard operating procedure for getting rid of a chemical mess back then was to bury it, burn it or send it down the drain, and that's just what the Navy did in Dallas.

The Navy knows of refuse burial sites and at least 73 underground storage tank sites, but no one knows what was buried or where. Groundwater was repeatedly contaminated by jet fuel spills, gasoline spills, diesel spills, hydraulic fluid spills, oil spills, leaky underground storage tanks, leaky lead water systems and sewage systems and more, records show. Tainted groundwater from repeated spills and leaks remains the Navy's most detrimental long-term environmental legacy at the station, Howe says.

Before leaving, the Navy promised environmental remedies but subsequently fought the city's demands to clean up the 750-acre site the way it agreed when it leased the property. It took a lawsuit to convince the Navy to restore the property to a standard clean enough for people to actually live there--a standard that seems hardly attainable today. The city this week settled with the Navy for $53.5 million. The Navy agreed to clean up to the city's satisfaction.

Even with the proposed cleanup agreement, at least another three years likely will pass before the site is considered safe enough to rent, even to industry. Hopes that the station could eventually house a university branch or residential area now seem remote. The reality for the about 750 acres of the station the city owns is that it is badly polluted, littered with now-worthless buildings and it could cost "as much as a billion dollars" to completely restore, a Navy engineering consultant testified. Perhaps it will be an aviation repair site someday, but it probably will not be much more than a big part of the messy industrial area that the station helped create.

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