Speed up the cleanup

Published 9:07 pm Tuesday, April 14, 2015

For 28 years, the U.S. government has worked to decontaminate a former Department of Defense site in North Suffolk that has been used at various times throughout the nation’s history to stockpile, ship, receive and even dispose of weapons and munitions.

Pig Point was an artillery location sited at the mouth of the Nansemond River by Confederate forces in the Civil War. Later, the renamed Nansemond Ordnance Depot would be an important location for loading and offloading munitions from U.S. Navy ships headed into and out of port during World War I and World War II.

When the U.S. government declared the property surplus in 1960, it was converted to educational use, first by the short-lived Frederick College and then by Tidewater Community College. The Portsmouth campus of Tidewater Community College operated on a small portion of the site’s nearly 1,000 acres until 2010, when a compact new campus opened on a 35-acre parcel in the Victory Village area of Portsmouth.


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Through all that time — and since — the U.S. government has ploddingly, haltingly and without any sense of urgency worked to find and remove the munitions that could prove hazardous — even deadly — to those who might want to use the long-neglected areas of the site.

The work started in 1987, when officials discovered an ammunition box containing debris and crystalline pieces of TNT. Since that discovery, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent nearly $60 million on the cleanup. Some folks involved with the project believe the cost of decontaminating the site could top $100 million by the time it’s all over. It’s hard to say, because the Corps of Engineers says it cannot even be sure how much time the project will take to complete.

Officials say the problem isn’t money; the North Suffolk site is the only one of five or six former defense sites on the EPA’s national priority list with an active cleanup effort, so it’s getting plenty of money.

The issue seems to be one of urgency — or the lack thereof. With the commonwealth apparently content to sit on the property and wait, Corps of Engineers officials have continually stretched the project timeline. Without a deadline, there has been no incentive to finish the job.

But the property is valuable to the commonwealth, and it’s valuable to Suffolk. Sitting at the confluence of the Nansemond and James rivers, the former munitions depot could be one of the region’s most picturesque parks, one of its most beautiful outdoor venues, one of its hottest entertainment complexes, one of its most desirable neighborhoods or one of any number of other beneficial developments. Instead, it’s fenced off and largely unavailable to the public.

It’s time for the city and the TCC Real Estate Foundation, the two owners of the property, to demand expedited action from the Corps of Engineers. If they need a little extra power behind those demands, they should get Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Delegate Chris Jones and Congressman Randy Forbes involved. All have a common interest in the success and usability of the property, and all have a responsibility to ensure that such a valuable public resource does not go to waste.

There’s too much value in this property to allow the Corps of Engineers to keep it off limits for endless and undefined years to come.