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Will Jefferson Proving Ground really close?

Will Jefferson Proving Ground Really Close?

May will mark Jefferson Proving Ground's 50th anniversary of testing ammunition for the U.S. armed forces. Whether the facility near Madison will have a 55th anniversary, however, is anyone's guess.

The military installation was one of 86 bases recommended for closure by the U.S. Department of Defense's Commission on Base Realignment and Closure. But because of the proving ground's extensive environmental contamination and the lack of funds needed for a partial cleanup, placing it on the closure list is, in the opinion of several government leaders, a serious mistake. "The bottom line at JPG is the unexploded ordnance," says Gary Stegner, JPG's public affairs officer.

The commission--composed of retired military personnel and former members of Congress--was formed to take the politically volatile issue of base closure out of the hands of politicians and to let presumably more objective experts make the hard choices instead. The commission two years ago recommended that 145 Army, Navy and Air Force facilities either should close or alter their operations. According to the commission's report, by following the recommendations, the federal government could save $5.6 billion over a 20-year period.

"I believe history will prove in the end a lot of mistakes were made," says Kevin Kellems, press secretary for U.S. Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind. "I have no evidence that there were axes to grind, but just because someone is retired doesn't mean he doesn't have friends still serving." Kellems also questions the commission's unprecedented authority and the absence of a review of the final report before publication.

Tim Goeglein, deputy press secretary for U.S. Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., agrees with Kellems. "There was a very appropriate rationale for supporting the base-closure act initially, but after carefully studying the information on the report and the GAO report, I think several questions still need to be answered."

The language of the base-closure bill, which followed the commission's recommendations, did not allow for military installations to be removed from the list that the commission submitted in December 1988. Congress had the option of either approving or rejecting the entire list. The bill passed both houses of Congress with little debate and became law in early 1989.

The proving ground covers more than 55,000 acres across Jefferson, Jennings and Ripley counties in Southeastern Indiana. Since 1941, the facility has fired about 23 million rounds of ammunition onto the 52,000 acres north of the firing line. They didn't all explode: About 1.4 million of them now are classified as "explosive duds."

The commission estimated the cost of closure and relocation would be recovered within six years, and that the land could be cleaned up, then sold for $25 million. While the commission's report noted that an environmental problem exists, it maintained "this review was not intended to be a substitute for the environmental analysis."

Absent along with environmental details was discussion by the commission of how to fund a cleanup. So the Indiana Department of Environmental Management commissioned a study of the cost of cleaning up the proving ground for unrestricted use. The study concluded that such a cleanup was impossible. It said a partial cleanup of the impact fields to a mere three feet below the surface would cost $50 million, which would allow the land to be used only for such purposes as a wildlife refuge or cattle grazing. Besides decaying ammunition, JPG's environmental problems the agency listed include a 12-acre landfill, the "presence of munitions containing white phosphorus which ignites on contact with air," depleted uranium, and contamination caused by insecticides and herbicides, PCBs and asbestos.

Though the land was continuously assaulted with ammunition, the facility is home to species of wildlife and trees atypical of Indiana. The bald eagle, osprey, bobcat and other endangered animals have been spotted at JPG. "That's an asset and a resource you can't even put a value on," says Ken Knouf, JPG national resource manager.

That leads to yet another problem that the commission did not consider: A security force would have to be maintained on the grounds to prevent poachers and trespassers from entering hazardous areas. Fred Nation, spokesman for Gov. Evan Bayh, says the worst situation would be the federal government simply locking the gate and walking away. "It will become an attractive nuisance sitting in southern Indiana we just can't have."

After the commission's report became law, the General Accounting Office conducted its own study of a dozen bases on the list, including JPG. The GAO concluded that the land at JPG could not reasonably be cleaned and sold.

The cost would be so high, it said, that savings would not be realized for 200 years.

The impact of closing JPG would be both military and economic. The commission recommended that JPG's mission be carried out in the future by the Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, but JPG proponents say that simply would cause an environmental problem in a new place while compromising the military's ability to test ammunition.

"There was no proving ground designated to handle the mission JPG has with the efficiency JPG does," Stegner said. "Essentially we represent the final quality check in the ammunition procurement process. The soldier depends on the work we do here to make sure the ammunition he's firing out there is going to be reliable, effective and safe."

Madison Mayor Morris Wooden also questions the commission's wisdom. Since the mission is vital and the land in Indiana is contaminated already, he believes the proving ground should remain open. "They're going to go out there to Yuma and do the same damn thing they did to us environmentally."

The economic impact of closure would be felt well beyond the JPG gates. The proving ground employs 421 civilians with an annual payroll of more than $13 million, and closing the base entirely would have a ripple effect on the regional economy. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study predicted sales in the area would decline $45 million and 500 people would lose their jobs in addition to those on the proving around payroll.

In order to ease the effects of closure, officials from the three counties that are home to JPG have formed the Jefferson Proving Ground Redevelopment Committee, which is examining ways to reuse the installation and make recommendations to the federal government.

The redevelopment committee and Sen. Coats have suggested turning JPG into a government-owned-contractor-operated installation. Wooden and Dave Daghir, special projects administrator for the city of Madison, explain that the federal government would assume liability and lease the facility to a contractor who either would continue the mission of testing ammunition or develop the area into a variety of things, such as an industrial park, a golf course or landfill. They also suggest that the base's airstrip could be repaired so a free trade zone could be created. While a large part of the facility will remain contaminated, Wooden points to the 3,000 acres south of the firing line, which have only minimal contamination.

Despite the risk, Wooden believes contractors will be interested in developing the area. "I think if they (the federal government) try to clean it up reasonably and they say, 'We're still willing to take the liability,' then I think the contractors will still be interested in it." In fact, Wooden says he has already been into contact with some contractors.

As the battle to remove Jefferson Proving Ground from the closure list drags on, the guns at the installation continue to test ammunition while the employees and surrounding communities anxiously await the future. Congress has made tough decisions before, and that leaves Wooden wondering why the politicians themselves--rather than the commission--couldn't have drafted a base closure and realignment bill.

"The thing that's so frustrating is, we send Congress there to make hard decisions and do the job," he says, "and they turn it over to a committee."
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Title Annotation:U.S. armed forces testing ammunition grounds near Madison, Indiana
Author:Odendahl, Marilyn
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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