By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
He concedes that the Navy may have acted in ways that damaged the environment before he got there. He just never saw it. The fact that the city sued the Navy shocked him, he says, because as far as he knows, the Navy was concerned about environmental issues and never acted improperly. Physical safeguards against possible spills were even erected to lessen dangers, he says.
"I was kind of floored, and I'd say this before any judge in the country. There was never any attempt to hide this material," he says. "You've got out there on the runway, say, a jet fuel spill or something like that. That was set up to run toward this collection tank, if you will, on the fuel farm, too. Years before that, well, that probably didn't happen."
About the time that the Navy notified the city of its intention to vacate the property, the city was learning about the extent of environmental damage. The Navy said the damage was serious enough that property deeds would need to contain warnings about potential health hazards and to prohibit certain types of uses such as growing vegetables.
The Navy produced thousands of documents related to particular structures or tracts of land on the station. The "environmental baseline study" is massive, occupying 58 banker's boxes stored at the city attorney's office. The study process revealed "injuries to the property" that were previously unknown to the city. Those injuries include a 20,000-gallon jet fuel spill in the early 1970s, spills from the fuel farm during the 1980s, an underground plume of trichloroethylene (a solvent and known carcinogen) from the Navy's weapons site and polluted soil from the Navy's habit of using wastewater treatment plant sludge as fertilizer.
The city learned that the Navy stopped using water from wells on the station sometime during the 1980s because the groundwater was polluted. It quietly sealed the wells, neglecting to tell the state's department of natural resources about it. Then the Navy bought water from Dallas and piped it in to the station using an obsolete system of holding tanks and piping. Testing showed unacceptably high levels of lead in the Dallas water, a problem later attributed to the Navy's corroded and obsolete piping system.
Many buildings, like the ornate officers quarters built in the late 1920s, are painted with lead-based paint and constructed with asbestos materials. Other buildings have flooded or leaked and now have mold contamination, Howe says.
The picturesque Mountain Creek Lake is polluted with chemicals that probably originated at the station as surface runoff or spills. The Navy doesn't control the lake, but the state's department of wildlife determined that the Navy without authorization released hazardous materials into it. Fish that were tested contained high levels of PCBs and selenium (a potentially harmful metal). Both contaminants are associated with increased cancer risks in humans. A cancer cluster study of ZIP codes around the lake and station did not show that cancers were abnormally high.
The danger from Mountain Creek Lake pollution isn't something that the Navy kept from the public or that the city had to wait to learn about. On May 30, 1996, at Lee Middle School in Grand Prairie, the Navy's experts met with a small gathering of the public to try to explain the state's newly enacted ban on fishing. The ban, which prohibited fish consumption, was enacted after the level of toxic chemicals in fish taken from the lake was found to be unacceptably high.
Captain Steven Beattie, a Navy representative at the meeting, said in part, "The Navy is and continues to be committed to environmental excellence. That's not going to change. Our ongoing installation restoration program is dedicated to maintaining that commitment."
"You just have to be careful. This isn't to the state where you're going to have to worry about busting through," he says, climbing the stairs to the second floor. "The only thing we can do is tear it down. Trying to restore this building would cost more than it would cost to tear down the building and build it again."
The offices, like others on the closed station, are laden with garbage. Former occupants left maps and charts on the walls, they left trophies and they even left an assortment of women's dress shoes. There is a gaping hole in the ceiling. This is what city officials said they feared more than five years ago. The city is taking possession of more than 180 structures. About 24 will be leveled by the Navy, and the city will level some more, Howe says. Almost all of the rest need environmental "remediation" before they could be used, he says.