By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The city had been concerned that the buildings on the property wouldn't be maintained. In March 1997 city officials reminded the Navy of its contractual obligations to protect and maintain the property even if the Navy planned to leave. Station commander Captain D.A. Lewelling promised the city that the property was being taken care of.
"I can assure you that I agree that it is in our mutual best interest to maintain the facilities in the best possible condition," Lewelling wrote in a letter to the city dated April 10, 1997. "...We have an active work order and repair process in place to ensure that facilities are properly maintained until they are transferred."
That, according to the lawsuit, was a lie. City officials didn't know it, but the Navy had stopped maintenance and inspection of station property right after it was listed for closure in 1993 and possibly even before then. By October 1998, there wasn't a building left on the station that was even suitable for holding a meeting between the Navy and the citizens committee established to discuss closure issues. Navy officials later conceded that they stopped maintaining the property in at least 1993. But, they said, they were really only responsible for maintaining two buildings that were standing in 1949 at the start of the lease. It only got worse after the Navy left and the squabble with Dallas started.
"The Navy's mothballing procedures commenced over city objections in 1998, [and that] accelerated the decline of improvements," the city said in its lawsuit. "...Many of the buildings have flooded and cannot be drained. The storm system is also broken and compromised. The absence of functional drinking water or sewer systems station-wide is a significant deterrent to new development or leasing of the existing buildings. Installing new water and sewer mains to comply with applicable building codes would cost several million dollars."
The runways were in disrepair; fire safety systems, including fire hydrants, were sealed or disconnected, and flooding as a result of disconnected sump pumps undoubtedly ruined wiring throughout most of the station complex.
In the meantime, despite objections from Dallas, the Navy transferred most of what was known as the "federal property," about 75 acres of prime station land including the main gate and station headquarters, to the Army and Marines. The property, which is in both Grand Prairie and Dallas, was considered the best and most marketable part of the station because buildings are newer and the property is relatively clean. The Navy could give the property away because in 1943 it condemned the land and took it. Adding further insult to both cities, the federal government also spent $4 million putting in new water, sewer and gas lines.
The Navy's failure to maintain the buildings and property and refusal to repair environmental damage ultimately threatened to cause Dallas a financial loss in the millions of dollars, the city said.
"The government had options available that could have mitigated the damage to the property and reduced the devastating economic impact on Dallas but deliberately chose other options that exacerbated such losses," the city said.
The Navy, the lawsuit says, was supposed to correct the problem with the unusable station water system but decided not to even address the corrosion issue because it intended "to close the station and leave Dallas holding the bag." The Navy gave Dallas a "misleading representation" that the station water system was in good order.
Not only that, but according to Dallas, the Navy was supposed to inspect the water system and file a water system inspection report with the state when the station closed. The Navy didn't file the report and didn't post warning signs. As a result, city employees and members of the Texas Air National Guard who were assigned to the station drank the water.
Stepping out of Building 1239, Howe takes off his mask and walks onto an overgrown sidewalk toward a flagpole where the concrete is cracked. It's hard to imagine that the walkway was once clean and swept to military standards. Howe says the building is bad but that most other buildings on the station now in the hands of the city are about as bad or worse.
"All you're going to see here is more of the same," he says.
In fact, because the lawsuit isn't entirely a done deal, no one from the Navy is saying much of anything. They did deny the majority of allegations in the lawsuit before deciding to settle and to clean the site to the city's satisfaction.
Beltz, the Navy's public affairs officer, says the Navy has employed sound environmental practices for many years. But, he concedes that damage may have occurred during or before the 1970s, when what was considered acceptable environmental practices to just about everyone could have caused harm. The Navy has agreed to do all it can to fix the problems, he says.