The Bad Tenant

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

Kallenberg, like other committee members, attended meetings for a while and then quit. Then the process just ended. In March 1999, the Navy sent the Dallas real estate division a brief letter, giving the city notice.

"The Navy is providing sixty (60) day notification of intention to terminate the above-mentioned lease in its entirety," the two-paragraph letter says.

The Navy had spent six years meeting with local residents, state and city officials. By 1998, it was clear that the station was a mess and, as it stood, ill-suited for houses or a university or industry. But, now, the Navy was about to leave with the promise to return and "remediate" portions of the site. It didn't promise to return the property to the way it was before the Navy arrived, as federal officials said they would in the 1940s, but only to what today is known as an "industrial" standard of clean. That means the property would not be clean enough for houses. It didn't even promise to include all the polluted property in the cleanup, Howe says.

Litter lines the floor inside a hangar at the abandoned station.
Mark Graham
Litter lines the floor inside a hangar at the abandoned station.

On May 7, 1999, the Navy sent a letter to the city saying that it would vacate the property in three days, on May 10. On May 9, the city sued.

"They were going to clean some of the property to industrial standards. They weren't going to do anything with respect to anything else," Howe says. "We just said that we didn't find that very acceptable, and that is one of the reasons that we sued."

At the Dallas Naval Air Station, Howe drives past the closed "fuel farm," a garden of pipes and valves sprouting up near the airstrip. It's where spills are known to have occurred. He says the Navy may truly want to be forthcoming with information about other environmental damage, but even with the studies, the Navy can't say with certainty that it knows about every toxic chemical spill or dump site on the station, he says.

"I don't think anybody would be 100 percent sure," he says. "The reason is that if you're talking about operations or something that happened in the '40s or '50s or even '60s, what records are left? What person is around that is still alive that knows anything about it?"

Before the early 1970s it would not have been unusual for the Navy or private industry to just dump or bury spilled fuels, oils, paints, battery acid or whatever. That is one of the problems the Navy faced in closing the Dallas Naval Air Station and other stations like it.

When the operation was fully functional, the Navy generated 70 tons of hazardous waste every year, with "80 percent average transported off base for recycling." The lawsuit says the Navy badly handled hazardous substances and some places where underground storage tanks existed are permanently damaged.

The Navy has a history of making environmental messes, and the damage in Dallas sounds similar. Besides the fact that the Dallas property was leased, the one big thing that is different about other places is that elsewhere environmentalists or neighbors of station property voiced concern about the damage and demanded studies of such things as elevated cancer risks from Navy pollution.

A newspaper article about a closed Navy station in California says, "The contaminated property includes 12 acres containing landfills, a wide plume of tainted groundwater and underground tanks where the military once stored jet fuels and oils. Dealing with contaminated groundwater could be the toughest environmental project on the former base."

In Alaska, the Navy spent close to $200 million on one station to clean up "fuel spills, removing asbestos from more than 300 buildings and scouring the grounds for small-caliber ammunition, grenades and bombs dating to World War II, when the station was opened," The Associated Press reported in May.

In Canada, taxpayers complained about having to foot the bill to clean up 51 abandoned U.S. military sites at a cost estimated at $720 million. The sites were contaminated with PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), mercury, lead, radioactive products and various petroleum byproducts that would take 30 years to clean up, the Ottawa Citizen reported.

Most of the damage done by the Navy in Dallas and in other places appears to be from misguided handling of toxic materials and poor storage or transportation systems. The military also seems to have done most of the harm before 1975.

Marty Schlotte worked as facility planning director for the public works department on the station from 1973 to 1994 and was one of those interviewed by the Navy for its study of what happened in Dallas. He could be one of those who might know something about environmental damage, but he says he doesn't.

"I know nobody was trying to hide anything. Nobody was burying anything out there," he says. "Nobody was trying to cover anything up or bury something. If it didn't get thoroughly cleaned up, maybe the contractor didn't go deep enough."

Schlotte says, "All I can say is that the ongoing time at the station I was out there, as far as trying to handle environmental problems, it was being taken care to the best that we could.

"When all this environmental stuff came to light, it got started kind of slow but then really got going big-time. Stuff that happened before that, I couldn't tell you," he says. "There's probably some people out there that could give you different viewpoints."

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