Metro-East News

Final decision: NGA not coming to St. Clair County

Artist’s conception of new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters in St. Louis.
Artist’s conception of new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency headquarters in St. Louis.

The $1.75 billion National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s western campus won’t be coming to St. Clair County, to a 182-acre site next to Scott Air Force Base.

Instead, it will be built on a 99-acre site in North St. Louis, according to an announcement that Robert Cardillo, the intelligence agency’s chief, released late Thursday afternoon.

Cardillo’s announcement came as hardly a surprise to Mark Kern, the St. Clair County Board chairman, and Illinois lawmakers.

Cardillo and his staff had been signaling they would be standing by the preliminary decision that Cardillo announced two months ago, much to the chagrin of metro-east leaders who had been optimistic the NGA West campus and its 3,100 jobs would be coming to Southwestern Illinois.

Top elected leaders in Illinois criticized Cardillo’s decision and expressed their disappointment.

Mark Kern, the St. Clair County Board chairman, issued a statement in which he said it was clear that Carillo “was given a faulty, one-sided Corps of Engineers report upon which he based his opinion.”

Kern noted that St. Louis has committed to deliver an “environmentally clean site to the government” by October of 2017, while tow investigations have been called for by Illinois senators and Congressmen.

“The results of any of these could be a game changer,” Kern wrote. “This thing is a long way from being a done deal.”

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., a leader in the effort to reverse Cardillo’s decision, released a statement critical of Cardillo’s choice.

“This isn’t the first time NGA has deliberately used bad information to make a bad decision, which is why I have asked the top government watchdog to ensure this decision is best for the war-fighter and taxpayer,” Kirk said.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, in a statement, also chastised Cardillo for his decision.

“I am deeply concerned about the security of the St. Louis site and I do not believe we have received acceptable answers from Director Cardillo,” Durbin said. “His decision today is short-sighted and ignores not only safety issues, but also legitimate concerns about cost overruns which will hurt taxpayers in the long-term. I support the request for GAO to look into the process that was used to come to today’s conclusion. Ultimately, this is just a bad decision and the people of Illinois and Missouri who work at NGA deserve a full, unbiased analysis.”

U.S. Rep. Mike Bost, R-Murphysboro, whose district encompasses St. Clair County, echoed the senators’ disappointment.

“NGA’s final verdict is as disappointing as the methods they used to achieve it,” Bost said. “It appears that this result was baked in long ago, despite nearly every objective metric being in St. Clair County’s favor. I’m currently reviewing NGA’s Record of Decision and the justifications they used for a process that has yielded far more questions than answers from the very beginning.”

In May, Kirk sent a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting an investigation into NGA’s decision. As chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, Kirk oversees the funding of the NGA relocation including land acquisition, planning and design of the facility, as well as the construction of the building.

The 38-page Record of Decision the NGA released justifying its choice focused on many of the arguments St. Clair County and Illinois leaders had raised as to why building the NGA West in North St. Louis would be a bad move.

One of the things that had angered and stunned St. Clair County and Illinois leaders were statements in the Army Corps of Engineers’ site-selection study that made it clear the North St. Louis site, which is located in an area of the city beset by high rates of crime and poverty, had been chosen to serve as a catalyst for urban renewal and to attract younger, better-educated workers.

The North St. Louis neighborhood is located in a federally created Promise Zone, which mandates that major federal public works projects, whenever possible, be built in low-income urban areas.

As to the argument that the North St. Louis location would not be secure enough because it lacked sufficient “setback” distance from city streets, making it an easy target of a terrorist truck bomb, the NGA responded that “the new campus will have numerous means to deter an attack, thereby making this a low probabilistic event. Risks will be managed through security engineering and design features for the facility and campus, the NGA police force routine patrols, perimeter cameras and close coordination with the St. Louis police force...”

And as to the argument the North St. Louis site presented a health hazard to NGA workers because of a secret Cold War chemical weapons program conducted at the nearby Pruitt-Igoe housing complex — a program that allegedly used radioactive materials on unwitting Pruitt-Igoe residents in the 1950s and 1960s — the Record of Decision likewise brushed those concerns aside.

The document noted that a letter from the Department of the Army to Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., in October 2012, stated that the Army’s Public Health Command “confirmed that the test conditions reported would not result in a health risk to humans. These reports found no evidence of a radioactive component to dispersion testing.”

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. The western headquarters is currently housed at the 190-year-old St. Louis Arsenal just south of downtown St. Louis. The NGA must move because it needs more room to grow and modern infrastructure, such as heating-and-cooling systems.

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

U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who advocated for keeping NGA in St. Louis, issued a statement saying the agency had “made the right call, both for the agency and for St. Louis — and it’s great news for more than 3,000 employees and a proud 72-year legacy on the front lines of American intelligence right here in Missouri.”

Mike Fitzgerald: 618-239-2533, @MikeFitz3000

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