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.
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 Bad Tenant

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.

"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.

Although it may not seem so, the settlement is a good break for the city. Most property that the Navy abandons is property that the Navy bought and owns. When the Navy leaves those stations, they clean up to a standard that allows property to be sold again and quickly taken off of Navy books.

In Dallas, the Navy was only a tenant (paying a total of $4 in rent). And, like a bad tenant, the Navy tried to just walk away, leaving cigarette burns, stains and broken toilets for a landlord that could use the earnings potential that the station was once thought to represent.

Jim Beltz, public affairs officer for Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Charleston, South Carolina, says he can't speak directly to the Dallas air station because of the lawsuit. But, he says, the Navy is prohibited from maintaining property once it is slated for transfer to another owner. In Dallas, the transfer process has taken nearly 10 years.

"One of our objectives is to transfer the property to the local communities' tax rolls and into the local economy for redevelopment quickly," he says. "We try to spend taxpayer dollars judiciously."

While it appears that the city will get compensation, it's ultimately going to cost taxpayers about $50 million in federal money to clean up after the Navy.

"This is kind of the way I think about it," Howe says. "You lease it out, the guy comes up to you and smiles and hands you the keys, goes away and you go into the apartment and you find he's trashed it."

A few months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the young American men who would fly the Navy's airplanes into battle started arriving at what was known as Hensley Field, a little airstrip just east of Grand Prairie. Wesley Hays, an 81-year Coleman resident, was one of them.

"I set my bags down there on the 21st of May 1942," he says. "That's where I was sent first. That's where I took my primary training."

There wasn't much to the air station then. It started out as an Army Air Corps airfield in 1928. By the time World War II broke out, it still didn't even have a mess hall, Hays says. When Hays set his bags down, the now-waterlogged hangar was there, and so were a couple of officers quarters and an underground bunker. The military declared that it needed the airfield and city land around it for the war effort. As they would do for the next half-century, the cities of Dallas and Grand Prairie obliged the military.

By 1946 there were 44 buildings on the station, which had been expanded to more than 700 acres. In the 1950s, to extend the runway for jets and bigger aircraft, the Navy filled in part of Mountain Creek Lake, a 2,710-acre man-made body of water created in the 1930s to cool a nearby electric plant. Next to the airfield at the north, about 300 acres is still Navy-owned and unaffected by the closure. The property has been used as a Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant and is occupied by Navy contractor Vought Aircraft Industries. The city agreed to extend its lease there until 2019.

The Navy mostly used the station for pilot training and aircraft maintenance and testing. The Navy operated as if the station were going to be around for a while, and during the Cold War no one had any reason to believe otherwise. As late as 1985, the Navy was making plans to update administrative offices, the runway, runway lighting and radar systems. Just a few years later, much to the surprise of city officials, the air station was deemed dispensable. In 1993, the Navy made it known that it would be moving out.

As part of vacating a property like the Dallas Naval Air Station, the Navy is required to conduct extensive environmental studies to reveal problems the Navy may have caused, whether a record of the original activity or dumped material was made or not. Officials from various state and local agencies and the public are supposed to take part in such studies.

And so the Navy studied. They formed citizen committees to talk about the future of the station and the effect the closure would have on surrounding communities. Media coverage of the initial news of the closure was widespread. The subsequent "scoping" process, when the Navy conducted groundwater tests and researched environmental damage done during the Navy's tenancy, was largely ignored by the press and public. Advocates for the environment, the omnipresent figures at public meetings in most states, are not even represented in the written record.

Environmental studies would go on for about five years. Committee members came and went. The thankless job of sitting through hours and hours of briefings by environmental experts and sorting through reams of documents was bad enough. It seemed, said Roger Kallenberg, one former committee member, that the committee never got around to talking about what to do with the station once the Navy left. All they did, he said, was talk about environmental problems.

"I was talking about what to do with the place; all they were talking about was cleaning it up," he says.

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.

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."

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."

Dave Howe isn't supposed to be personally annoyed at the Navy, but when he slips on a white surgical mask outside of Building 1239, he kind of acts like he is. He says the last time he was in this particular building he had a headache in "10 minutes flat." He suspects it's the mold. Walking through a door to what appears to have once been an administration building, he points out a hole in the floor easily big enough to hold a pair of boot imprints.

"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.

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.

The 700 acres around the airstrip that young pilots saw in 1942 aren't likely to ever become clean enough for a lakeside resort or single-family houses, but city officials say the $50 million being paid by the federal government will make the site clean enough to market it to industry. No one is saying what financial losses can be attributed directly to Navy mothballing or the 10 years or so of Navy neglect.

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.

"The settlement addresses the fact that the Navy has and will continue to honor its commitment to clean up properties that have been closed to ensure that the environmental conditions satisfy all federal and state regulatory requirements," he says. "We will certainly do that in Dallas."

Beltz says he is barred from explaining (even if he knew) the logic behind cut runway wires or dead sump pumps and the like.

The settlement does not spell out the amount taxpayers are spending to fix the more recent damages, but it's not hard to guess. Mayor Laura Miller, who formerly served as a councilwoman for District 3 where the station is located, says that about $35 million of the settlement money will be used to pay for the environmental cleanup and the rest will be used to "market it and fix it up."

She says the terms of the settlement require the Navy to bring the property to residential standards, though no one sees a housing development in the old air station's future.

Not Miller nor any other city official would say much complimentary of the Navy as a tenant or as a careful spender of taxpayer money.

"When you have a station that's that size, 700 acres, and you go ahead and lease it out to the federal government for a dollar a year, at the very end of the day the least you would expect back is that they'll leave it clean," Miller says. "They left it just grossly polluted and in such terrible shape that we can't possibly market it to anyone else until all of the contaminants are taken out."

Hays, the young pilot who arrived at Dallas Naval Air Station for training in 1942, hasn't seen the station since about 1960. But, after starting his military career there and spending about 20 years flying in and out of the closed station as a Navy Reserve pilot, he's a bit more sentimental than the lawyers, politicians and bureaucrats who are presiding over the once-bustling and now-crumbling base.

"I really hated to see that station close," he says. "You get a feeling toward those things."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >