Decades later, cleanup continues at naval base
Cleaning up an old military base doesn’t happen overnight.
Even before South Weymouth Naval Air Station closed in 1997, the Navy began addressing the environmental hazards at the air base, which includes land in Abington, Rockland, and Weymouth. Today, even as the vast property that was once home to World War II blimps gets redeveloped into a new community called SouthField, the work continues.
Approximately $50 million has been spent on site investigations, studies, and remediation efforts, according to David A. Barney, who is overseeing the cleanup for the Navy. Another $25 million to $30 million is needed to finish the job.
But the end may be in sight. A list of potentially contaminated sites that once numbered 100 is down to single digits, said Barney.
“We want to get it done right the first time,’’ said Barney, in a recent telephone interview. “We want to make sure when we turn the property over, it’s in good condition for subsequent reuse.’’
The Navy has been studying the base and scouting out potential environmental hazards since the 1980s. As part of those efforts, the Navy conducted interviews with people who used to work at the base; reviewed construction drawings and blueprints; and examined old aerial photographs to identify areas that might still contain traces of jet fuel, oil, or other substances.
As time went by, awareness grew, environmental regulations evolved, and the number of potentially contaminated sites on the base increased, according to Barney.
Initial cleanup activities at South Weymouth took place in 1986, when two drums of PCB-contaminated soil were removed and 5,000 gallons of spilled jet fuel was cleaned up, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Since then, additional site assessments were conducted. Contaminated soil has been dug up and hauled away in trucks. Up to 50 underground oil storage tanks have been removed, according to Barney.
The West Gate Landfill, which was used for trash from the 1940s to the 1970s, has been capped. So has another landfill on the base.
“The vast majority of environmental concerns have been addressed,’’ said EPA spokesman Bryan Olson, who is in charge of military base cleanups in New England.
The handful of sites that remain includes an old hangar known as Building 82, and Building 81, which was the site of a small office building and garage. (Chlorinated solvents were detected in soil and ground-water samples at both locations a decade ago.)
Another part of the base is known as the “solvent release area.’’ It was located near the pistol range and a hobby shop, where military personnel worked on vehicles. Field studies are under way at those three sites, and remedies will be selected by next year, according to the EPA.
The former South Weymouth Naval Air Station is still a designated Superfund site, and it remains on the National Priorities List - the EPA’s list of the most hazardous sites in the country. The Navy is in charge of the environmental remediation efforts, the Department of Defense is funding the cleanup, and the EPA acts as the lead regulatory agency.
The Restoration Advisory Board continues to hold meetings and discuss cleanup efforts at the former air base. The RAB’s mission is to promote community awareness about the cleanup and provide a forum where citizens’ concerns could be heard.
The goal is to “make it a very open, transparent process,’’ Barney said, but attendance at RAB meetings has ebbed and flowed over the years.
An environmental cleanup is “a complex and difficult subject for people to hang onto and grasp,’’ said Barney.
That’s one reason some residents formed a nonprofit organization called the Advocates for Rockland, Abington, Weymouth, and Hingham.
This watchdog group won a $50,000 grant from the EPA to hire environmental experts to help educate the community about the cleanup at the base and other environmental concerns (Such as where will SouthField get its water? How will sewage be handled?) Members of the group attend RAB meetings regularly.
“It’s an education when you go’’ to the RAB meetings, said Mary Parsons, a Rockland resident who is executive director of the advocates. “They take the time to answer the questions.’’
The advocates group recently launched a website (www.arawh.org) that includes photographs of the base and reports from the environmental consultants they’ve hired.
Parsons hopes the website will “give people a better understanding of the base and cleanup and water and sewer issues. A lot of people don’t know what the base looks like on the inside, or they’ve never seen those parts of the base.’’
Barney said he occasionally receives calls from potential buyers interested in SouthField. When they ask about the cleanup, Barney said: “I say it’s extremely thorough. It’s under extremely good and solid oversight by technical experts at the EPA, and the state has been involved with this.
“We know a tremendous amount about this site. It’s well understood; it’s been thoroughly evaluated. Our responsibility of turning it over to the community and being protective of human health and the environment can be assured.’’
Barney said environmental monitoring at the site will continue for “at least 30 years.’’ And the Navy isn’t the only entity watching the base, he said.
“We work extensively with regulatory agencies,’’ said Barney. “We try to take every opportunity to involve the community in discussion. We’re really working as a team. I see the light at the end of the tunnel.’’