If all goes according to plan, by the end of 2022 the Air Force will transfer two small parcels of land to local communities — one in Alaska and one in Illinois — and with it, close the history on Galena Forward Operating Location in Alaska, and Chanute Air Force Base, Ill.
And while the size of the transfers — just over an acre of land in Alaska, and 263 acres outside a small town in Illinois — may not sound impressive, it represents an important milestone for the Air Force.
The transfers have been a long time coming, said Dr. Steve TerMaath, chief of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center’s Base Realignment and Closure program that oversees cleanup and property transfer for 40 installations closed by federal legislation.
Although the BRAC team has transferred nearly 98 percent of the property portfolio totaling more than 88,000 acres — an area approximately the size of Detroit, Mich. — work continues on parcels at six former installations: Chanute, Galena, Wurtsmith AFB, Mich., Williams AFB, Ariz., and George and McClellan AFBs in California.
Closing a base doesn’t mean the Air Force hands over the keys and walks off. The Air Force closed Chanute in 1993 and Galena ceased operations in 2008. Since then, the AFCEC BRAC team has worked with the communities and local environmental regulators to address environmental conditions and return the property in ready-to-use condition.
“The Air Force’s partnership with these communities didn’t end when we closed the doors,” TerMaath said. “We have a responsibility to ensure we transfer property for community reuse. This often means we do it in pieces because it takes time to make the property environmentally ready.”
Approximately one acre in Alaska
For nine months out of the year, students travel to the middle of Alaska to attend the Galena Interior Learning Academy, a statewide boarding school for grades 9-12 and Alaska’s longest operating residential secondary vocational school.
From the 1950s until 2008, the buildings that house the learning academy were part of Galena Forward Operating Location, a strategic site used by the Air Force to detect and intercept incoming Soviet aircraft during the Cold War.
Following the 2005 BRAC recommendation, the Air Force closed Galena in 2008 and began the environmental restoration process before the Air Force could transfer the 152-acre site back to the community.
“At the end of the day, we’re giving back a piece of land and infrastructure that provides opportunities for the community to grow while also freeing up resources the Air Force needs to modernize critical infrastructure,” said Christiana Hewitt, BRAC property transfer program manager and base environmental coordinator for Galena.
With clean up at many BRAC locations spanning decades, keeping property transfer on schedule can be a challenge, Hewitt said.
“There are challenges at every installation, and Galena is an extreme example of that,” she said. “It’s in the middle of rural Alaska, there are no roads to Galena and we can only do restoration work for about five months of the year.”
In 2013, Galena was nearly wiped out by icy flood waters from the Yukon River, leaving Galena almost uninhabitable. Faced with the prospect of losing a year’s worth of progress, AFCEC chartered a small passenger plane daily for restoration contractor commutes between Galena and Fairbanks. As that summer season came to a close, AFCEC had the opportunity to give back to local families by adding a few four-legged members to its flight manifest.
As Galena worked on recovering from the flood, sled dog owners who had evacuated with their teams had to find a way to transport their dogs back to the isolated town.
“Reuniting these sled dogs with their families back in Galena was an easy call for the AFCEC team and part of our commitment to the community,” Hewitt said.
Since 2008, AFCEC has closed 30 sites at Galena, installed 24 remediation systems, removed 8,800 cubic yards of contaminated soil and injected 310,000 pounds of treatment amendments to accelerate cleanup.
Wildflowers in Illinois
Thousands of miles away from Alaska, a field of wildflowers covers a landfill at the former Chanute Air Force Base near Rantoul, Ill. The wildflowers are a legacy of former Chanute Restoration Advisory Board member Lorraine Wirges, who suggested the wildflowers to maintain honeybee and butterfly populations.
Wirges joined the Chanute RAB in 1997 and served until it was adjourned in 2019. She passed away in April of this year.
“Every time I see those wildflowers, I think of Lorraine. She really cared about the future of the base and embodied the relationship we strive to have with the community,” said Paul Carroll, base environmental coordinator for Chanute.
Since Chanute’s closure in 1993, the Air Force has committed more than $190 million to clean-up efforts, treating groundwater at 27 sites and removing 23,200 tons of contaminated soil and debris. To date, the Air Force has transferred 2,000 acres to the local redevelopment authority, allowing the Village of Rantoul to attract occupants in the fields of transportation and education, including the Illinois Autonomous and Connected Track which features smart freight and vehicle test tracks, and roads traversing urban, suburban and rural settings. Nearby Lincoln’s Challenge is an alternative educational environment managed by the Illinois National Guard and designed to give at-risk youth a strong foundation to grow into contributing members of the community.
While the land transfer at Chanute of the remaining 263 acres is a significant milestone and financially benefits both the Air Force and LRA, it does not represent a transfer of responsibilities in regard to environmental liabilities, TerMaath said.
“We still have remedies in place and we’ll continue to address any environmental impacts as a result of former Air Force use of the property” TerMaath said.
In recent years, the BRAC program initiated comprehensive environmental response actions to identify and address drinking water impacts stemming from the use of legacy firefighting foam at numerous closed installations. The foam contained synthetic fluorinated chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. While these chemicals remain unregulated at the federal level, the Air Force is taking action to investigate confirmed releases and protect drinking water sources based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory.
Although Air Force investigations have found no drinking water impacts over the EPA’s lifetime health advisory at Galena or Chanute, TerMaath said the Air Force will continue to be good environmental stewards and community partners regardless of whose name is on the land deed.
“The BRAC program plays a significant role in the Air Force’s modernization plan,” said TerMaath. “We are committed to reducing our footprint and the costs associated with maintaining excess infrastructure, and we’re committed to working with regulators and our BRAC communities to do it as quickly and efficiently as possible while sensitive to community redevelopment plans.”
To stay up to date on AFCEC’s BRAC Program, visit https://www.afcec.af.mil/Home/BRAC/.
To learn more about AFCEC’s commitment to addressing PFAS, visit https://www.afcec.af.mil/WhatWeDo/Environment/Perfluorinated-Compounds/.