Metro-East News

Kirk calls for congressional probe of NGA site selection; public submits 1,600 comments

Artist’s conception of National Geospatial-Intelligency Agency headquarters in north St. Louis.
Artist’s conception of National Geospatial-Intelligency Agency headquarters in north St. Louis.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says will ask the Government Accountability Office — the U.S. Congress’ top financial watchdog and auditor — to investigate the steps that resulted in a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report that led to the preliminary decision to build the $1.75 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s western headquarters in north St. Louis.

“The report was paid for by taxpayers, and those taxpayers deserve an honest presentation of the facts,” Kirk said in a written statement sent to the News-Democrat. “Instead they were handed a one-sided, sloppy report that doesn't accurately reflect what Illinois has to offer. For these reasons, I will be asking the Government Accountability Office to take a look at this process and make sure taxpayers’ money was used effectively.”

Kirk indicated he will submit the letter formally seeking the GAO probe early next week.

On April 1, the Corps of Engineers issued its Final Environmental Impact Statement, or FEIS, on the four St. Louis-area sites then under consideration for the NGA West headquarters. The report favored the north St. Louis site over the others, including one in St. Clair County next to Scott Air Force Base.

The report concluded the 99-acre north St. Louis site was the best choice because the project and the 3,100 jobs it would bring could be used to revitalize a low-income neighborhood blighted by vacant buildings and crime. Also, the report found, the north St. Louis site would be the best situated for attracting the most highly-skilled graduates from universities in the St. Louis area.

But Kirk and other proponents of the 182-acre site in St. Clair County quickly cried foul when NGA Director Robert Cardillo used the report to name the north St. Louis site as his preliminary choice for the headquarters. They argued the part of the report with St. Clair County was deeply flawed, suffering from poor analysis and riddled with errors.

They also argued the section of the report dealing with north St. Louis failed to take into account the serious environmental problems — including potentially harmful toxins from a secret U.S. Army chemical weapons testing program — besetting the nearby remnants of the abandoned Pruitt-Igoe housing complex.

Kirk and other Illinois leaders have also slammed the report on the grounds it failed to show the big disparity in security for the two sites. They say the St. Clair County site, because of its proximity to a major military installation, is far better protected from potential terrorist threats than the north St. Louis choice.

Mark Kern, the St. Clair County Board chairman, on Friday praised Kirk’s call for a Congressional probe.

“Given the discrepancies and falsehoods we uncovered in our extensive review of the Corps of Engineers report, it is clear that Sen. Kirk is on the right track in asking for this review,” Kern said in a written statement. “We applaud Sen. Kirk for protecting the interest of the taxpayer.”

The NGA needs to move from its current home at the old St. Louis Arsenal, located just south of downtown St. Louis, because it needs to expand and it needs much more modern and secure infrastructure.

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, whose district includes Scott Air Force Base, also lauded Kirk’s call for a probe.

“I support him in this,” Bost said. “And it is appropriate for him to do it with my support, but with him taking the lead because he has the committee of jurisdiction. So I am in total support.”

Bost was alluding to the fact that Kirk serves as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs.

“His voice in this, because of that committee of jurisdiction, carries a tremendous amount of weight,” Bost said.

Bost said he is optimistic that Cardillo’s preliminary decision to build NGA West in North St. Louis could be overturned and the St. Clair County site will ultimately be chosen on its merits.

“I think we can reverse it,” Bost said. “And I hope for the country that we can. Because I think the evidence will show that not clear information was given...And I think the evidence will show that once Homeland Security and other groups and organizations weigh in on the location and the danger by locating it at that other site” the decision will be reversed.

Kirk, Kern and Bost plan to meet on Thursday with U.S. Sen Dick Durbin, D-Ill., at an office in the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C. There they will present their case to Cardillo on why he should overturn his decision and choose the St. Clair County site instead.

The Illinois elected officials plan to cite a wide range of evidence on how the FEIS got it wrong, including a privately commissioned security report that shows St. Clair County is far safer for NGA West than north St. Louis, along with a recitation of geographic and other errors in the FEIS itself.

Kirk’s call for a GAO probe comes just a few days after the public comment period regarding the preliminary decision ended. An estimated 1,600 comments have been received, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

One of the most detailed comments came from Kern, the County Board chairman, who last Monday fired off a critique of the NGA preliminary decision. In a 19-page letter, Kern slammed the FEIS, which held that locating NGA West in north St. Louis would work as an effective engine for urban renewal .

Kern contended the FEIS revealed a “predetermined bias in favor of the St. Louis City site” and that it was undermined by factual inaccuracies that had been ignored by the Corps of Engineers when the county brought them to their attention.

“Even the simplest corrections, such as a negative reference to a document pertaining to a St. Clair County in Michigan,” were ignored, Kern wrote. “In fact, the FEIS actually added another negative reference to an environmental issue existing in St. Clair County, Missouri.”

Cardillo, the NGA director, is set to announce his final decision on the site location after June 2.

The NGA, a secretive Defense Department intelligence agency that makes maps based on satellite imagery, announced two years ago it needs a new home for its western headquarters.

Construction on the NGA site is set to begin in mid-2017,with completion set for 2021.

Mike Fitzgerald: 618-239-2533, @MikeFitz3000

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