Buried Legacy

STANDING AT THE pristine edge of Marsden Lake, a 560-acre wetland lake in Arden Hills, you'd never guess that the water butts up against the fourth largest contaminated military site in the country. On a clear day, the water is sky blue, trumpeter swans nest in the reeds, and glacial kames crown the view, broken only by a 100-acre gravel pit littered with slag and debris. Craig Andresen tends his bluebird houses here, mapping out this eastern edge of the Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant with his feet each season. When the wind drowns out traffic on I-35, an oak savannah and the wild shoreline make what Andresen calls "the perfect place to find some solitude in the city."

On days like that, it's easy to turn your back on the rest of the 2,383-acre facility, home to abandoned bunkers full of undetonated ordnance, buried vats of toxic slop, and an invisible alchemy of PCBs, heavy metal residue, and chemical solvents that qualify TCAAP for membership in the $100 million club--a post-Cold War cleanup pricetag shared by 81 other U.S. military sites.

The history of the site is the history of America's wars. The $71 million plant itself--made up of over 200 buildings on the western grounds--was built in 1942 to supply ammunition for the war, cranking out nearly 10 million rounds a day, a record that kept TCAAP thriving during the Korean and Vietnam wars. But like many of its $100 million club rivals, the plant's fortunes dwindled in the face of 1970s detente and, more to the point, a new generation of armaments that effectively displaced the old ones. In the mid-'70s, the Army shelved the facility to standby status; by 1991 it was deemed "in excess" of current military needs, and just last year the Army put out feelers for proposals on how best to slough the property off, either for public use or private enterprise. Its primary tenant is Alliant Techsystems, a lovechild produced by Honeywell and the Pentagon, which lends over 35 percent of its entire TCAAP estate to the explosives manufacturer tax-free. And Alliant's not moving. Taking into account the proscribed "safety arcs" around the company's digs, that leaves just over 1,500 acres up for grabs.

Despite the dozen-plus Superfund cleanup projects already under way there, more than a dozen parties have joined in the contest over first rights and best uses for those remaining acres. City officials in Arden Hills want the land for "office campuses," a high-end retail district, residential and public park development--all to the tune of rocketing tax revenues. The Mdewakanton Sioux from Prairie Island want the land for off-reservation housing and a deluxe casino--a proposal that was recently chewed up and spit out by arsenal-area residents. Environmentalists want the land returned to its native splendor.

In all, this debate over TCAAP's fate has left the overall decontamination project in limbo and the Army, with hot property on its hands, in the director's chair. By most accounts, its preference is to turn the site over to the bidder who offers up the lowest price tag for decontamination, leaving proposals for residential development--which require the most stringent detox under EPA rules--on the losing end, and a paved-over industrial park in the sweetheart seat.

Whatever final blueprint does get the approval stamp, it's clear that the property will be divvied up in piecemeal fashion over the next 50 to 100 years. A diverse 20-member Reuse Committee, appointed in October 1994 by Congressman Bruce Vento at the Army's request, has just completed its inquiry. Its recommendations will go to the Restoration Advisory Board, formed last September under stern pressure from the Arsenal Cleanup and Conversion Project--a self-appointed assembly of local activists.

They couldn't be more irked. In a scathing five-page letter released last Friday, ACCP members blasted Army officials for sabotaging the long-running push to decontaminate and turn over the grounds. The document accuses the Army of hosting behind-closed-doors meetings in violation of its own guidelines and Minnesota state law, of stacking the new advisory board with yes-men while elbowing out arsenal-area residents, and of effectively stalling the whole process in a series of bait-and-switch maneuvers. It also raises serious doubts about the Army's eagerness to actually turn over its stake in the TCAAP acreage. With that charge in mind, a delegation of activists is due in Washington by the end of the year to push for federal legislation that will, according to staff at Vento's local headquarters, "expedite the timely and orderly transfer of the property." Whatever the disposition, that cleanup and transfer will cost the Army--and in turn, the taxpaying public--anywhere from $100 million to $500 million. And even then, no one caught up in the TCAAP conversion can say if the site will be free of its wartime shadow, or the undetonated arsenal that lies just under the tranquil surface.

 
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