Editorials

Cost of NGA unknowns could be huge

Explosions brought down the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in the 1970s, about a decade after the U.S. Army’s last round of weapons tests using rooftop blowers and radioactive isotopes. The spread of that contamination and other environmental issues from 250 years of urbanization could add significant environmental costs to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s proposed North St. Louis site.
Explosions brought down the Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in the 1970s, about a decade after the U.S. Army’s last round of weapons tests using rooftop blowers and radioactive isotopes. The spread of that contamination and other environmental issues from 250 years of urbanization could add significant environmental costs to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s proposed North St. Louis site. Provided

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk is emerging as our champion on the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency siting decision. He’s calling on the Government Accountability Office to look into how the study that led to North St. Louis being picked over St. Clair County got it so wrong, and he’s assembling congressional clout for a meeting Thursday with NGA Director Robert Cardillo.

St. Clair County Chairman Mark Kern said the study showed “predetermined bias in favor of the St. Louis City site.” If you’ve read it, or especially if you read the preliminary study and compared it to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ final study, you know he’s right. There are mistakes, there are mountains made of mole hills and there are exaggerations of language between the two versions that appear intended to rationalize a predetermined conclusion rather than offer evidence to make a decision.

The bias is clear, but the real problem is that there are costs associated with making a bad decision.

It is highly suspicious that the North St. Louis site was originally proposed because there was a 30-acre vacant tract where the old Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex once stood. Then suddenly Pruitt-Igoe land is out of the final analysis by the Corps of Engineers. They claim there’s no contamination, but they thought another agency tested the land: when a reporter checked, that St. Louis agency said they never tested any of it.

That is some slip-shod research by the Corps. How much would a guy with a shovel and some soil analysis cost when you are considering where to put a $1.75 billion facility? By the way, that cost estimate is up from the $1.6 billion the NGA folks were claiming before the St. Louis site was picked.

At a minimum, we need our congressional delegation to insist that nothing be spent on the North St. Louis site until a full environmental assessment is completed and we know what costs we face trying to clean up North St. Louis.

Cutting Pruitt-Igoe out looks like a fast fix to keep questions about site contamination out of the public scrutiny of this decision. We know the U.S. Army conducted Cold War era tests using blowers atop Pruitt-Igoe to see how chemical weapons would spread, and used radioactive particles to track the test spread. We also can assume that a massive housing complex built in the 1950s and razed using early 1970s standards likely spread a significant amount of asbestos and other nastiness around. And we can guess that contaminants from fans blowing radioactive isotopes and from exploding buildings did not stop at the property line, but rather have mixed with whatever other environmental surprises await after 250-plus years of urban living.

It is difficult to put a dollar amount on security and the value of thwarting a potential terrorist attack on the spy mapping agency that helped our military find and kill Osama bin Laden. There are distinct costs for trying to fortify a facility that is just feet away from a congested St. Louis residential area versus one that is feet away from Scott Air Force Base with hundreds of open acres surrounding it.

You have to appreciate that the Republican from Chicagoland is taking the lead, still fighting and offering hope that this bad decision can be fixed. You also have to appreciate that local Democrats are not letting party alliances get in the way of our nation’s defense and taxpayer accountability.

But then you have to wonder about the role of the guy who grew up here, is saying there’s little hope for a reversal and keeps pointing away from the former U.S. Senator from Illinois with whom he served before Kirk. E tu, Dickie?

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