Vieques out, N.C. in?

By BILL SANDIFER, Staff Writer

Eastern North Carolina has long played host to — and generally welcomed — all manner of military bases and operations. As a result, the state boasts the third-largest military presence in the nation, according to news reports, trailing only California and Texas.

But a troubled economy and renewed efforts to expand military use of the state’s land and air appear to be at odds, troubling many who wonder what’s coming next.

Add to that mix the overwhelming amount of information — and misinformation — available through the World Wide Web, and it’s understandable that many local activists now scour distant databanks as avidly as ancients consulted the Oracle at Delphi.

Those searches have, indeed, brought to light a number of documents, including Navy material, Navy studies contracted to civilian firms and information from a number of federal agencies that appear to point to a heightened military interest in dropping more bombs on Eastern North Carolina.

Is there a basis for concern, or are contract planning studies merely the bread and butter of the military-industrial complex?

Via condios, Vieques

One thing is clear: The Navy in the late ’90s realized Vieques Island off the coast of Puerto Rico would not be politically or practically suitable as a bombing range for many more years. So military memos were written, and civilian contract studies conducted to arrange for alternative training facilities.

A December 2002 memo from the chief of Naval operations to the Navy secretary discusses “(t)he expansion of East and Gulf coast range capabilities proposed by Commander, Fleet Forces Command.” The expansion, states the memo, is necessary to fill in the gap left when Vieques is closed.

In a January 2003 letter, Navy Secretary Gordon England writes, “I hereby certify that one or more alternate training facilities exist that, individually or collectively, provide an equivalent or superior level of training for units of the Navy and Marine Corps stationed or deployed in the eastern United States. The Department of the Navy will provide the resources and will address the environmental issues such that alternative facilities are available and fully capable of supporting such Navy and Marine Corps training immediately upon cessation of training on Vieques. … Training on Vieques will cease no later than May 1, 2003; at which time the alternative facilities will be ready.”

And, right on schedule, Vieques was shut down in May 2003. But before leaving Puerto Rico, according to a December 2002 memo — before the decision to close Vieques was made — the Navy had already:

“Conducted an Environmental Baseline Survey to document property conditions at turnover.”

“Completed a ‘Vieques Transfer’ Environmental Assessment (EA) with a finding of no significant impact (FONSI).”

However, the Environmental Protection Agency apparently failed to accept the EA contract study upon which the Navy based its FONSI. Little more than two weeks ago, on Aug. 13, EPA made a disturbing announcement:

“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today proposed to add certain areas on and around the islands of Vieques and Culebra, in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, to the National Priorities List (NPL) of the country’s most contaminated hazardous waste sites. The Commonwealth identified these areas collectively as the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Area.”

Preceding EPA’s announcement, international news agencies had begun reporting on conditions that flew in the face of the Navy’s environmental findings.

“Now that the U.S. Navy is gone,” reported the Inter Press Service news agency in December 2003, “residents of the Puerto Rican island-town of Vieques must deal with the daunting question of what to do about the toxic mess caused by decades of military activity. Weapons tested in the firing range included highly polluting depleted uranium ammunition. …

“In what many observers consider a bizarre twist, this wilderness refuge is simultaneously a toxic disaster area. Earlier this month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended that the lands and marine areas polluted by the Navy be declared a Superfund site.”

Hello, North Carolina?

So what does this mean for Eastern North Carolina? Understandably, Daily News’ readers who researched these documents fear bombing could also make a mess of portions of North Carolina’s coast.

Navy and Marine officials have minced no words in stating the need for facilities to replace Vieques. Questions to Atlantic Fleet Command Navy spokesman Lt. Jim Hoeft brought an array of answers on alternative facilities now in use.

“Since the closure of Vieques in (May) 2003,” writes Hoeft, “these exercises were moved to the Atlantic Coast and Gulf of Mexico using a variety of (Department of Defense) range complexes and operation areas. … (N)o decisions have been made to date to change the network of ranges currently in use by the U.S. Atlantic Fleet.”

According to Hoeft, that network includes:

Pax River, Md. — Air-dropped mine exercises.

Cherry Point — Surface, air and subsurface training operations including missile shoots; gunfire and air-to-ground munitions training (nonexplosive ordnance).

Dare County — Air-to-ground munitions and electronic warfare training (nonexplosive ordnance).

Camp Lejeune — Limited air-to-ground/close air-support (nonexplosive), USMC spotter training, ship-to-shore and ground maneuver operations.

Townsend, Ga. — Air-to-ground munitions training (nonexplosive ordnance).

Pinecastle, Fla. — Air-to-ground munitions training (explosive and nonexplosive ordnance).

Avon Park, Fla. — Air-to-ground munitions training (currently nonexplosive ordnance only).

Key West, Fla. — All levels of training, support surface, air and subsurface training operations including missile shoots and gunfire.

Eglin AFB, Fla. — Air-to-ground (explosive and nonexplosive ordnance) and electronic warfare.

Bahamas — Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center: supports air, surface and subsurface-instrumented underwater range training.

Unlike Vieques, for the present, live rounds will not be fired from ships, says Hoeft.

“With respect to training conducted in North Carolina,” he noted, “all ranges use nonexplosive (inert) rounds.”

Although no live rounds are slated to be fired in the region, Hoeft confirmed shelling across the Intracoastal Waterway has resumed.

“The G-10 impact area,” writes Hoeft, “can only be used for USMC spotter training. The environmental studies and agreements to conduct this training are in place and, since 2001, 32 missions have been conducted with over 2,000 total nonexplosive rounds expended incident-free. The Intracoastal Waterway, roads and airspace in the vicinity of G-10 are closed during the event.”

The G-10 area is a roughly 1-square-mile patch of ground about 2.5 miles north of the Intracoastal Waterway at Brown’s Inlet. The area is within restricted airspace and is accessible only by 4-wheel-drive vehicles and helicopters, according to Marine Corps information. Targets consist of truck bodies, tanks and improvised targets, say Navy documents.

And the future?

The Navy explains

A 2000 Navy study looks at the nagging issue of limits on firing live ammo.

“One unresolved issue is the firing of high-explosive ordnance across the Intracoastal Waterway. The Marine Corps routinely closes the waterway for brief periods to fire inert ordnance (e.g., 155 mm artillery) from the beach towards inland targets, but at some point, the Navy agreed not to fire live ordnance across the waterway. If Navy ships are to use the G-10 impact area for live-ordnance training, that agreement will have to be revisited.”

Whatever the Navy has in mind, it will apparently not happen overnight. Several Navy studies point out the time-consuming steps necessary before major range realignments can occur. The following is a familiar litany to anyone following the Navy outlying landing field controversy.

“(T)he Navy has to follow procedures described in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that involve studying alternatives and their consequences, and developing a proposal, which is then made available for public comment. We have been told that this second step should take approximately five years against normal opposition if no serious problems arise. NEPA requires an environmental impact statement (EIS), which takes about two years to prepare. It then takes roughly another three years to defend the proposal against a court challenge and subsequent appeals. If there are problems (e.g., a significant issue is not addressed in the EIS) the process can take considerably longer or the Navy can be enjoined from proceeding. …

“(M)ost of the East is already heavily developed, especially near the coast. If a coastal area has not been developed, it is probably because that land was set aside as a park or a recreation area or an ecologically sensitive zone where development is deemed inappropriate. The second problem is convincing the local populace that a training range is the best and highest use for that land.”

‘The goodliest land’

Logistics aside, just how attractive is Eastern North Carolina?

Of seven national and international bombing ranges studied, Camp Lejeune received the highest marks as a ship-to-shore firing range.

As an amphibious assault exercise facility, Camp Lejeune racked up straight As.

“Camp Lejeune is the most promising SACEX candidate and the only one that is a serious alternative to Vieques,” states one study. “The Supporting Arms Coordination Exercise is an event driven, live fire exercise designed to test communications and fire support coordination capabilities. It is the only training event in which forces preparing to deploy can exercise their most complex capability — the employment of combined arms to support a Marine amphibious assault.”

Based upon the 2000 study, the Navy appears hopeful that the 2001 resumption of shelling across the ICW may eventually be expanded to include live rounds.

“Camp Lejeune is actually a very good site for a SACEX, and many such exercises have been conducted there in the past. The main advantage that Vieques has over Camp Lejeune is the ability to include live-fire NSFS in the exercise, but it appears that could be done at Camp Lejeune as well.”

Other Navy studies also give Camp Lejeune high marks as one of the replacement sites for Vieques.

“We examined existing U.S. ranges as potential alternatives to Vieques and found two promising candidates. … The leading candidate is a collection of ranges accessible from the Virginia Capes operating area (VACAPES) that includes Camp Lejeune, the Dare County and Cherry Point ranges, and also Fort Bragg. The use of Fort Bragg for live bombing has yet to be negotiated, but it seems to be the final piece of the puzzle.”

Anther piece of the puzzle recommended to fill in the gap left by Vieques doesn’t involve North Carolina land but water.

“Develop an east-coast water-impact NSFS range, preferably in the vicinity of Camp Lejeune.”

Both Navy and Marine spokesman have indicated a willingness to provide more information. See future editions of the Daily News for more information.