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Portland Press Herald May 15, 2005

Kittery shipyard won't sink quietly - or quickly

By Tom Bell

Portsmouth Naval Shipyard workers don't need to rent U-Haul trailers quite yet.

The base's closure is not a sure thing. There are still about six months of lobbying and political maneuvering before the final decision is made.

If that battle is lost, it would take years to wind down activity at the yard, experts say, and the gates could remain open until nearly 2012. It could take even longer if the shipyard needs extensive environmental clean-up.

"It's not like they are going to kick everybody out and turn the lights off," said John Pike, a military scholar at GlobalSecurity.org.

The shipyard is one of 33 major bases the Pentagon has proposed closing as part of a new round of closures and realignments aimed at saving nearly $49 billion over 20 years.

The Pentagon is also recommending the Brunswick Naval Air Station for "realignment" - it would remain open but with fewer personnel.

The Kittery shipyard would lose 4,510 jobs - including 201 active-duty military personnel. More than half of the civilian workers are Mainers. Most of the rest are New Hampshire residents. The Navy plans to move the bulk of the shipyard's repair functions to Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia.

BNAS would lose 2,420 jobs, most of them military, representing about half the base's active-duty military personnel. Brunswick's aircraft would be sent to Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida.

But before any of that happens, the nine-member Base Realignment and Closure Commission will review the Pentagon's list and make final recommendations by Sept. 8. President Bush will either accept or reject the list in its entirety by Sept. 23. If he accepts it, the list becomes final within 45 days unless Congress rejects it in its entirety.

The job of BRAC is to make sure the Pentagon followed its own procedures in putting the list together.

The commission will hold public hearings in Washington all this week. For Maine, the key day is Tuesday, when Navy officials go before the commission to explain their recommendations.

Between now and Sept. 8, at least two BRAC commissioners will tour each affected base. In addition, BRAC will hold regional hearings to gather testimony from local communities. In 1995, the hearing was held in Boston.

While it's not impossible to strike a base off the closure list, the process is set up to make that very unlikely, said David Sorenson, author of "Shutting Down the Cold War: The Politics of Base Closure."

The Navy has yet to propose any kind of schedule for closing the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. By law, the Navy must begin closing it no more than two years after the list is certified, and it must finish the job within six years. Under that schedule, the shipyard's gates could stay open until November 2011.

Cutbacks at the Brunswick Naval Air Station could happen more quickly because the base's fleet of P-3 Orion aircraft can be easily taken out of service or moved to another air base, Pike said. But closing a nuclear-certified shipyard would take years, and it would be done in stages.

He said military planners would need time to figure out what to with all the equipment, whether to sell some of it or transfer it to other installations. They would also have to figure out how to disperse the shipyard's workload - and work force - among the Navy's three other shipyards.

For the bulk of the base's work force, it would be "business as usual" through 2006, Pike predicted. He said an orderly shutdown would begin in 2007, and site remediation would begin in 2008 and last for several years.

Because of potential groundwater contamination at the site, parts of the shipyard may stay under Navy control until they are cleaned up.

And that could take many years, delaying the conversion of the base to other uses. Thirty-four military bases shut down since 1988 are still on the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund list of worst toxic waste sites - most of them for at least 15 years - and not one is completely cleaned up.

Sorenson said contaminated soils and groundwater are usually found at shipyards, particularly old ones like Portsmouth.

Contaminants could include trichloroethylene, a cleaning solvent linked to cancer, as well as asbestos, radioactive materials and lead paint.

"Shipyards, by definition, are environmentally unfriendly," he said.

Sorenson said the military has spent about $200 million cleaning up the Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco, which was listed for closure in 1991. He said the cleanup is still not complete.

He said the Navy would isolate areas that are contaminated and allow areas that are safe to be redeveloped.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report.


Copyright 2005, Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.