Last Swath of Fort Ord is Turned Over to Local Group for a $100M Privatized Cleanup

Last Swath of Fort Ord is Turned Over to Local Group for a $100M Privatized Cleanup

A 3,300-acre Superfund site at the once vast Fort Ord in Monterey County has moved from federal hands to a group of local authorities that will oversee a $100 million environmental cleanup funded by the U.S. Army and will set the stage for redevelopment.

The site, which was riddled with bullets, bombs, artillery shells and other potentially explosive devices, comprises the final swath of the former 28,000-acre Army training base that was designated for transfer to Monterey Bay communities.

Federal, state and local officials yesterday marked the handover as the end of the federal era for the former Army base that was established in 1917 and became a military training and staging powerhouse for soldiers in three wars. Fort Ord was also an economic engine and a prime job source for the region's civilians.  Its closure in 1994, during a decade of base shutdowns around the country, brought hard times to the area.

In announcing the land transfer, officials also hailed the arrangement as a move that would further recovery of the region. They said privatization of the cleanup will knock years off that project, expedite other preparations for land reuse, and hasten the ultimate handover of the property to the communities that will redevelop the acreage.  Plans for the land include commercial and retail development, affordable housing, education facilities and a new veterans' cemetery. Almost 75 percent of the land is to remain open space for habitat conservation, trails and recreation.

"I've always said that economic development and environmental protection can go hand in hand and this project is a perfect example." Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said in a statement. "The transfer of this land to the Monterey Bay community is yet another victory in our efforts to preserve and protect the environment, and advance economic recovery."  

"This is central to our efforts to building a balanced, sustainable program at Fort Ord,"  said Michael Houlemard Jr., the executive officer for the Fort Ord Reuse Authority (FORA).  The group is overseeing the environmental cleanup and restoration by a team of independent contractors – LFR Inc., Weston Solutions Inc. and Westcliffe Engineers Inc. – and is laying the groundwork for redevelopment.  FORA's governing board is made up of elected officials from local communities and other jurisdictions.

The arrangement with the Army that enabled the handover is significant on many fronts, said Houlemard and representatives for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which will regulate the cleanup process.

The exchange is only the second to involve a privatization project on a former military base property; the first was a 62-acre section of the former McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento. The Fort Ord transfer is the largest of its kind. The privatization of its cleanup was made possible by the Army’s commitment of $100 million in upfront money, provided in July, to fund the project. And in terms of magnitude, even among federal Superfund sites — a designation reserved for the most contaminated properties in the country — the 3,300 acres at Ford Ord present a highly complex challenge.

Unexploded ordinance, discarded munitions and groundwater and soil contamination make for a “huge, huge cleanup” on what would otherwise be "some of the finest real estate in California," said DTSC Director Maureen Gorsen.

Her department credits the Army with taking on a “vital role” in the conversion of Fort Ord and already spending more than $350 miilion to remediate the former base.

According to Gorsen, preliminary investigation and cleanup have led to the exploration of 12.9 million, mostly hand-dug holes to look for munitions, discovery and detonation of 7,900 pieces of ordinance, the drilling of 400 groundwater wells, installation of four groundwater treatment systems, and soil cleanup at 43 sites, including removal of 63,000 truckloads of contaminated dirt and 400 truckloads of fractured bullets and slugs, which were recycled for lead.

The remaining aspects of cleanup and restoration are expected to take five to seven years to complete — an improvement over an estimated timeline of a dozen years or more had the project not been privatized, said Gorsen and Kathleen Johnson of the EPA.

Johnson, the EPA media affairs director for the region, said making FORA responsible for project oversight speeds the process because it enables a single agency to focus on a single project. The transition to reuse also is expedited because FORA can manage the remediation schedule among areas so that work aligns with redevelopment priorities.

Such privatization and the partnerships it facilitates among government agencies, communities and business are expected to serve as a model. “We do think that this is a paradigm and at bases where redevelopment is so strongly needed and desired, privatization could be repeated,” Johnson said.

The transaction, considered an “early transfer” because property changed hands with cleanup work still to be done, was lauded by representatives of communities around the country that border former and active military installations, Houlemard said last night.

He announced the transfer at the annual conference of the Association of Defense Communities, which was being held in Monterey. Some 700 people attended the conference where much of the dialogue focused on issues of environmental, economic and community sustainability, particularly in areas near closed bases, said Houlemard, who is the association’s board president.

Previously transferred Fort Ord land has become the home for California State University at Monterey Bay, the Dunes on Monterey Bay Shopping Center, which includes an REI, Target, Kohl’s and Best Buy stores, and 7,200 acres of open space with 83 miles of public recreational trails and roads under the supervision of the Bureau of Land Management.  The enterprises have brought 4,000 jobs to the area, with total anticipated job growth projected at 18,000 by 2015, according to the DTSC.

LeVonne Stone, the executive director of a citizens’ group called the Fort Ord Environmental Justice Network, said she wants to see greater consideration paid to residents’ needs for jobs and affordable housing.  She contends most of the recently created jobs don’t match the skills of those who were put out of work after the base closed.

“We would like to see the whole community really be counted and included,” said Stone, who added her sentiments also apply to the planning process for Ford Ord redevelopment. “Many people feel intimidated by the entire process and don’t feel they’re at the table. Taking care of the enviroment is about taking care of the people.”