Decades Later, Closed Military Bases Remain a Toxic Menace

For much of the 20th century, Fort Ord was one of the largest light infantry training bases in the country, a place where more than a million U.S. Army troops were schooled in the lethal skills of firing a mortar and aiming a rifle — discharging thousands of rounds a day into the scenic sand dunes along the coast of central California.

Later, when it became clear with the end of the Cold War that the colossal military infrastructure built up to fight the Soviet Union would no longer be necessary, Fort Ord was one of 800 U.S. military bases, large and small, that were shuttered between 1988 and 2005.

The cities of Seaside and Marina, Calif., where Fort Ord had been critical to the local economy, were left with a ghost town of clapboard barracks and decrepit, World War II-era concrete structures that neither of the cities could afford to tear down. Also left behind were poisonous stockpiles of unexploded ordnance, lead fragments, industrial solvents and explosives residue, a toxic legacy that in some areas of the base remains largely where the Army left it.

Across the country, communities were promised that closed bases would be restored, cleaned up and turned over for civilian use — creating jobs, spurring business growth and providing space for new housing.

But the cleanup has proceeded at a snail’s pace at many of the facilities, where future remediation work could extend until 2084 and local governments are struggling with the cost of making the land suitable for development.

Marina and Seaside city officials say the land they received costs more to service than it generates in new taxes, and future growth is unpredictable.

“They say Fort Ord is the biggest success in the United States, but if you ask me it is the biggest failure,” Marina’s city manager, Layne Long, said. “They didn’t do anything to remove the blight — 28 years after the base closed.”

At more than 1,000 sites within the closed bases, the land is so badly contaminated that no one will ever be allowed to live on it. Sites that were supposed to be clean were later found full of asbestos, radioactivity and other health threats.

In most cases, fixing up the bases is costing far more than expected and taking longer, federal reports show. The Government Accountability Office found last year that the projected costs for closing the bases had escalated to $65 billion from $43 billion. And while the Pentagon officially reports that it is saving $12 billion a year as a result of the Base Realignment and Closure process, the G.A.O. said that Pentagon officials did not have complete records of how those estimates were calculated.

Curtis Payton, environmental coordinator of the cleanup project at Fort Ord, leading a tour of the site.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times
Munitions found at Fort Ord.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

A test explosion of a phosphorus bomb at Fort Ord in 1940.Credit…Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone, via Getty Images

Fencing along the Fort Ord site.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times
Soil samples taken at 23 locations on the Fort Ord site contained lead levels that were many times higher than the cleanup goals.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

Senior Department of Defense officials declined to discuss the current state of the base closure program, amid widespread litigation and growing concern in Congress that the closures have been costing money for decades, rather than saving it.

But in a 2019 report to Congress, the Pentagon said that the remote location of some bases, new standards for toxicity, the severity of contamination and limits in current technology have slowed the work. Officials said the department “is committed to fulfilling its obligations” and pledged to “maximize cleanup program efficiency and effectiveness.”

Sharp tensions among local communities, federal overseers, cleanup contractors and homebuilders have produced hundreds of lawsuits all over the country.

Among the most highly contaminated and contentious properties is the former Hunters Point Naval Shipyard on the San Francisco waterfront. Even after $1.2 billion in federal spending, dozens of disintegrating buildings sit on soil contaminated with toxic solvents and metals, including plutonium and uranium.

Warships used in nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific during the 1940s and 1950s docked at Hunters Point for decontamination, and the Navy operated a radiological laboratory there. The base was supposed to be closed, decontaminated and handed over to the city, but after 30 years, 90 percent of it is still in the Navy’s hands.

Military base cleanups are often full of surprises, but Hunters Point is in a league of its own. Two supervisors at an environmental firm, Tetra Tech, which the Navy hired to help clean up the base, were convicted in 2018 of fraudulently submitting clean dirt to a laboratory in place of the contaminated dirt at the shipyard and were sentenced to prison. The Navy asserts the crime set back the cleanup by years.

A class-action lawsuit brought by 660 homeowners who purchased condos built on a small section of the shipyard resulted in a $6.3 million settlement as a result of the flawed cleanup, said Anne Marie Murphy, a lawyer who represented the homeowners.

“It is very hard to sell your house out there,” she said. “Residents are feeling a sense of despair.”

Navy ships docked at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in October 1947.Credit…Duke Downey/San Francisco Chronicle, via Getty Images
The Navy Radiological Defense Laboratory at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in 1955.Credit…Bob Campbell/San Francisco Chronicle, via Getty Images

The neighborhood surrounding Hunters Point is among the lowest-income areas of San Francisco, a place where homeless people shelter in tents and rundown recreational vehicles.

A community health program, the Hunters Point Biomonitoring Foundation, has found elevated levels of toxins in 150 nearby residents matching the substances in the shipyard soil, said the director, Dr. Ahimsa Porter Sumchai.

“It is amazing how dangerous the situation is,” she said.

One of her patients, Kelly Tankersley, who lives in a warehouse about 100 feet from the base’s fence line, provided medical records showing unsafe levels of uranium and plutonium in her urine. Dr. Sumchai said Ms. Tankersley has fatigue and other health problems that are probably a result of toxic exposure from Hunters Point.

In upstate New York, the former Seneca Army Munitions Depot still has more than 100 concrete igloos from World War II for storing bombs, which officials in Seneca County say they cannot afford to demolish. Many such old structures do not meet modern building codes and for local communities, they become permanent white elephants.

Glenn Cooke, who directed efforts to repurpose the depot for more than a decade, said he pleaded with a senior Defense Department official for more funding to remediate the base. “And he said, ‘How can I afford to give you guys more money when I can’t afford to buy body armor for all my troops in Afghanistan?”

“We were doing it on a shoestring,” Mr. Cooke said.

The depot employed 1,000 civilians and 400 Army personnel, representing about 10 percent of the county’s households. Now, the biggest use of the 10,587-acre site is the Five Points Correctional Facility, a prison with about 938 inmates and 660 employees.

The most valuable piece of property was a base housing complex on Seneca Lake, but the county sold that to pay for lawyers to negotiate with the Pentagon, Mr. Cooke said.

There have been success stories. The former Lowry Air Force Base near Denver has 5,000 new homes, 3 million square feet of commercial office space, a dozen new schools and 800 acres of parks, said Tom Markham, who was executive director of the base reuse authority for 18 years. The roughly 7,000 civilian jobs lost at the base were more than offset.

“We not only had a good location, but we were lucky to hit the market at the right time,” he said.

But even there, the community had to sue the Air Force when asbestos was discovered in the soil. A Superfund site is still operating to clean up groundwater contamination caused by Air Force dumping.

G.A.O. officials said in interviews that defense officials had warned in the 1990s that completing the cleanup would be far out in the future, but now it is even further out. A 2019 Pentagon report to the Senate indicated that the final cleanup is now projected for September 2084. The report warned that some sites will require “management in perpetuity” to protect human health.

Fort Ord, a huge, 27,800-acre site, is typical of the challenges of closing large, complex bases outside of big cities.

Marina and Seaside each received portions of the base. The beachfront was taken by the California Department of Parks and Recreation. The California State University system got a portion for a small campus. The Army held on to 876 acres. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management got the bulk of the base, converting it into a national monument with hiking and biking trails.

About half the monument is still closed because of unexploded ordnance.

Seaside’s mayor, Ian Oglesby, an Army veteran who served at Fort Ord, said commercial development on the base has proved to be challenging. The Army gave the city 4,000 acres, including two existing golf courses, doubling the size of the city.

About 380 new homes were built, but it costs the city more to provide police and fire service there than it gets in property taxes. The Army kept ownership of 2,000 homes on the base, used for staff and students at two Defense Department schools, but does not pay property taxes. The Army kept open the Post Exchange and an Army gas station, depriving local businesses of sales and the city of sales taxes, Mr. Oglesby said.

“It is still a military base in our city on a closed military base,” he said. “That becomes a development challenge.”

Ian Oglesby, the mayor of Seaside, Calif., is an Army veteran who served at Fort Ord.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times
Homes near the former Fort Ord site.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times
A vacant lot near the Dunes on Monterey Bay shopping center.Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times
Training on the use of a mortar at Fort Ord in 1941. Credit…Oakland Tribune/MediaNews Group, via Getty Images

In nearby Marina, the city cannot afford to demolish 300 blighted structures, said Mr. Long, the city manager. The empty buildings have attracted homeless persons, who set fires every month or two, he said. “We repair the fence and then they cut them and go right back in.”

The Army has set up two treatment plants at Fort Ord to remove solvents and other contaminants from groundwater. In 2021, 12,000 acres were removed from the Superfund program, reflecting progress in the cleanup, though fully cleaning up the groundwater could take another 30 years, officials said.

Since the cleanup began in the early 1990s, the Army has found 79,014 “munitions and explosives of concern,” said Curtis Payton, the Army’s environmental coordinator at the site.

Trails and roads on the national monument have been fully cleared of buried ordnance, but beyond that, “There could be anything out there,” Mr. Payton said, adding that digging up all the buried ordnance would destroy the sand dune habitat. Still, he said, “We are chipping away at it, making incremental progress.”

But many local residents do not share that optimism. David Dilworth, a member of a citizens’ advisory board that was disbanded, said the Army’s work has been a “fake cleanup.”

At what is now Fort Ord Dunes State Park, where the Army once operated 17 firing ranges, soil samples taken at 23 locations contained lead levels that were many times higher than the cleanup goals, according to a study by graduate students at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Mr. Payton said the cleanup met the standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency and the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control.

The California Department of Parks and Recreation, which now controls Fort Ord’s beaches, reported in 2022 that it had found 368 pounds of lead fragments in the sand, which were turned over to the Army.

Mike Weaver, another advisory board member, said local residents have asked the state to post warning signs of possible lead dust at the beach park. Park officials say signs are unnecessary, because any contamination is in restricted areas behind fences — though the 2022 report noted that two teenagers had managed to get into the restricted area and collect 60 lead bullets.

“Visitors, including the homeless, college students and families with children, deserve such notification,” Mr. Weaver said. “It is a public health issue.”

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