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Army still cleaning up Fort Gillem

By Ed Brock

ebrock@news-daily.com

After more than 40 years living a stone's throw away from Army Garrison Fort Gillem in Forest Park, Jimmy Cobb is well aware of the contaminants that have soaked the soil behind the perimeter fence.

In fact, his father and his wife worked at the fort, and he knows of one contaminated site near the fort's PX store that has already been cleaned up.

"It doesn't bother me. They're working on it," Cobb said, adding that he's more affected by the smell of a nearby rendering plant.

But there aren't any wells around Cobb's well kept home on Craig Drive.

"There used to be some wells here. They're gone," Cobb said.

In fact, the contaminants may be a key to saving the fort from closing.

During World War II there was an airfield at the fort, and, during the process of cleaning and maintaining the planes, the Army allowed contaminants like oil and solvents to wash into the soil, said Ernest White, the fort's restoration program manager. They've also found detergent from a laundry operation at the fort, White said.

"There might be some unknown contaminants under the soil," White said.

At the time, nearly three decades before the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the soldiers at the fort were complying with the regulations that existed then. And, even now, White said, nobody has demanded that the Army clean up the contaminants.

The remediation program, which has been ongoing for nearly 15 years, is a proactive step, White said.

Investigation into the contamination began in the early 1980s, and active clean up began in the early 1990s. So far, it has cost approximately $29 million and may cost around $12 million to finish.

"You have to remember, these are estimates," White said.

The contaminants have effected ground water, surface water, soil and sediment in and around the base.

According to a fact sheet distributed by the fort to residents in the area, test wells have also found volatile organic compounds like tetrachoroethene, found in oil, gasoline, paints and dyes, exceeding EPA standards in the northern off-site study area just down Slate Road from the Cobbs' house.

Similarly, high levels of VOCs were found in the southern off-site study area, which includes the Joy Lake area and parts of Forest Parkway. The only real impact on the community, White said, is that residents won't be able to dig wells because they draw from the ground water.

White said there are 12 sites undergoing active monitoring and clean up, but progress is being made.

"We're waiting on the Georgia EPA to issue an approval for no further action on six other sites," White said.

The remediation may be completed by 2015.

Fort Gillem and its parent installation, Fort McPherson in Atlanta, were included on the Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure list released on May 13. The BRAC Commission is currently reviewing the list, and, if five commissioners vote to do so, individual installations can still be removed from the list.

Once it goes to President Bush by early September, the list can only be accepted or rejected as a whole.

Last week, one of those BRAC commissioners, James Bilbray, visited Fort Gillem and said there may be a very good chance it could get off the list.

Part of the reason he said that was a belief that the Defense Department may have underestimated the cost of the environmental cleanup.

"We have new numbers that are contradictory to what the Pentagon gave us. That will be looked at," Bilbray said. "Fort Gillem has an excellent chance of getting off the list."

Bilbray also said some of the contradictory information dealt with the cost of moving some facilities off the base if it is closed. He would not comment on the details of the contradictory numbers regarding the environmental clean up.

White also said he could not talk about anything related to the BRAC list. On June 30, the BRAC Commission will send a delegation to Atlanta for a public hearing.

Fort McPherson and Fort Gillem are home to headquarters for the U.S. Army Forces Command, 3rd U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserve Command. Scott said Atlanta would be vulnerable to terrorist attacks if the bases were closed.

Fort McPherson is one of the nation's oldest bases, in use since the 1880s. Combined with Fort Gillem, it is Atlanta's seventh largest employer, with a civilian and military payroll of 4,141 people.

Losing the forts could drain about $670 million a year from the local economy, U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Georgia, said.

"That alone is worth the fight," Scott said.

The Naval Air Station in Marietta and Navy Supply Corps School in Athens are also slated for closing.