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Posted 1/16/2014

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By Dana Finney, ERDC PAO


Note: this article concludes a three-part series about the closing of Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul, Ill., 20 years ago and what it has meant to the nearby Construction Engineering Research Laboratory (CERL). Part 1 reviews the genesis of Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC); Part 2 describes the challenges of former Chanute employees who took new positions at CERL; and Part 3 recaps some of CERL’s later research supporting the BRAC process, environmental issues at shuttered bases, and property transfers. This article first appeared in the Dec. 19, 2013 issue of the ERDC Information Bulletin.

RANTOUL, Ill. - After the first Base Closure and Realignment Act passed in mid-1988, breaking a deadlock in Congress that had prevented any BRAC actions, a flurry of activity ensued that produced the first list of base closures by December 29 of that same year.

It was well understood among decision-makers that this first round would be a test of the legislation’s success in creating a “politically neutral process” that Congress would allow to go forward. It was also recognized that the process would have gaps and unseen issues that would emerge later, as bases began closing.

When legislators declined to disapprove the closure list, the first BRAC was deemed a success and it was followed by a new statute in 1990 calling for three additional commissions to operate in 1991, 1993, and 1995 (off-years for elections). As BRAC evolved, a push for better transparency in the proceedings, more in-depth environmental studies, and other concerns led to involvement by CERL and some of the other Corps of Engineers labs.

Environmental costs quantified

In the early 1990s, the former Office of the Assistant Chief of Engineers (ACE) asked CERL to assess Army installations’ environmental pollution status to generate data required for the Department of Defense (DOD) BRAC Office. This office generated the initial recommendations for the BRAC commissions’ consideration.

“It was a daunting task, because we had just 10 weeks to evaluate hundreds of different installations for more than 50 environmental factors,” said Robert Lozar, now a retired annuitant with CERL’s Ecological Processes Branch. “Then there was the problem of how to present all the data – remember, we didn’t have Excel or Access in those days! One of our computer specialists set up Unix scripts to handle the information in a database, so that we could not only report the findings, but begin to show whether a base’s environmental condition might be a problem.”

Lozar and his team took the results on three floppy disks to the BRAC commission meetings at Fort Belvoir, Va.’s Fusion Center for presentation to “high-level appointees with extraordinarily tough demands.”  For a neutral go-between, the Corps tapped its Waterways Experiment Station to interface with the commission.

In a related tasking, as data for the study was coming in to CERL, research biologist Dr. Harold Balbach had a preliminary meeting with the ACE who questioned the projected costs for environmental cleanup across the whole Army, not just BRAC sites. “He said, ‘Wow, is it really going to be this much?’ which was maybe on the order of $16 billion. And I said, ‘Oh no. You need to multiply that estimate by about 10, because I am certain the installations and Major Commands were reluctant to pass along the full estimates.’ Of course, what we know now is that it is even exponentially more than that.”

For example, Chanute, which was considered “small potatoes” in potential cleanup costs for the first BRAC round, is still not cleaned up 20 years later. Asbestos removal contracts are under development for two facilities slated for removal in the near future (more on that later) and some groundwater and soil pollution cleanup is still in progress.  One Midwestern proving ground included in the study reported it likely had literally millions of unexploded munitions scattered over nearly 50,000 acres of testing grounds.

“For 200 years, people dumped all sorts of munitions and chemical weapon systems in all kinds of places,” said Lozar. “No one really knew what we were up against.”

Before and during the ACE study, a major concern among CERL’s researchers emerged:  the planners were solely focused on environmental issues with bases that might close without considering the impact on those possibly gaining new troops and missions.

“What happens to the training lands, the water supply, the urban and social landscapes at somewhere like Fort Benning if they are going to get 20,000 more troops with their families,” Balbach said. “These were concerns we had and, toward the end of the study, I think we had finally convinced people that needed to be part of the picture.”

More than 10 years after raising those flags, CERL had become involved in helping with studies that marked the first BRAC, 2005, in which encroachment became a factor in the decision making.  Encroachment includes any installation or regional environmental issues with potential to impact training or testing missions. The CERL-University of Illinois (U of I) developed Land-use Evaluation and Assessment Model supported these studies and is still being used at active bases, such as Fort Riley, Kans., to model regional futures.

What to do with BRAC’d buildings?

White Hall at the former Chanute Air Force Base, at nearly 500,000 square feet, was DOD’s largest building until the Pentagon was completed in 1941. Today it is a crumbling hazard to the public and the Village of Rantoul has successfully forged an agreement with the Air Force to remove the building.

In the early ‘90s, as Chanute was shuttering, CERL’s then-deputy commander had an epiphany: Let’s relocate the lab to White Hall! He felt this would be the perfect answer to CERL’s growing need for space and Rantoul’s efforts to reuse the base’s facilities. But after a team visited the hall to assess its potential to house CERL, the answer was a predictable “no.”

The building was found to be loaded with asbestos, as would be expected for any facility built in that era before the dangers of exposure were realized. In addition, CERL was in the process of embracing the computer technology explosion, putting personal computers on every desk and networking them with internet capability. The antiquated electrical and cooling systems in White Hall would have needed a complete overhaul to meet these emerging needs.

So, if the buildings on bases that are closing can’t be reused, what do you do with them?

Building removal presents major environmental considerations, and that doesn’t just apply to BRAC sites. The often industrial-sized facilities supporting defense operations can produce thousands of tons of construction and demolition (C&D) waste, and when “smash-and-trash” is the method used to remove them, all of that waste goes into landfills.

“Several years ago, we began efforts to convince installations to consider ‘deconstruction’ as an alternative to destructive demolition,” said CERL’s Tom Napier, a research architect. “The goal was to dramatically reduce the volume of C&D waste disposal and to salvage, reuse and recycle the building materials. By conserving resources – using what we already have – we’d also reduce the adverse environmental impacts associated with manufacturing new materials.”

The years following BRACs and other mission changes brought billions in military construction projects across the nation as installations built facilities to accommodate relocating units and improve quality of life for Soldiers. To make way for new construction, bases had to remove thousands of old buildings. Many of them were “temporary construction” built during World War II, and had dimensional, beautiful lumber no longer available for sale in the U.S. as old-growth trees have been over-harvested.

Napier has been following the progress of two major building removal initiatives at the former Chanute base. One is the central heating plant and the other is the massive White Hall. The U.S. Air Force is working with the Corps of Engineers to contract for the work.

According to Village of Rantoul architect Martin Alblinger, “The village really supports the concepts of sustainability and reuse. We’re not talking about just ‘some stuff’ we’ll need to deal with when these buildings come down. We have listed quantities and given those to the Air Force.”

For example, he said, the 11,000-square foot steam plant has more than 240 tons of structural steel, 1,200 tons of brick and 1,600 linear feet of cut limestone. Recycle/reuse is a real possibility. Contract negotiations will determine if deconstruction will be used in the two facilities’ removal, but “we are definitely promoting the idea to the Air Force.”

CERL’s cultural resources work at BRAC’d and other installations includes performing Historic American Building Surveys (HABS) and evaluating properties that may be eligible for listing with the National Register of Historic Places. “My first project at CERL in 1992 was completing the HABS study for Chanute’s Red Cross building,” said Dr. Susan Enscore, a historic architect. “I found the building’s history very interesting, and its design is a fantastic combination of form and function.” Although badly deteriorated, the cross-shaped facility is still standing today.

Property transfer support

In 1994, Congress enacted new legislation to speed the economic recovery of communities adversely affected by base closures or realignments.  It included a new property transfer authority called an “Economic Development Conveyance” (EDC) that gives flexibility to the military departments and local reuse authorities in negotiating the terms and conditions of conveyance if specified criteria are met.

CERL helped the BRAC Office evaluate many of the EDC applications submitted for review in the late 1990s. “Basically, the team did a review of the economic feasibility of what was proposed to be done with the base grounds and buildings,” said retiree Jeffrey Kirby. “As you can imagine, the neighboring cities were eager to get the facilities but would ask for a reduction in the value of the site to offset what they may have to do to remediate or repair it. The cities would often say the site was worth ‘X’ but required ‘X’ repairs so they would take it for nothing. We almost never found that to be true.”

CERL