Fort Bliss Will Change El Paso
by Sito Negron
Posted on May 10, 2008
Got a news release couple of days ago. It announced this: "El Paso to Host Senate and House Joint Committee Hearing on Fort Bliss Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Impacts and Strategies."
The hearing is Tuesday (May 13) at the El Paso Community College—Transmountain Campus.
The news release states that "Participating Committees Include Senate Subcommittee on Base Realignment and Closure, Senate Veteran Affairs & Military Installations Committee, and House Committee on Defense Affairs and State-Federal Regulations."
Here's the quote that got my attention: "BRAC will impact education, public health, workforce, infrastructure and mental health agencies. To meet the challenge, we must prepare now," said state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, Chair of the Senate Subcommittee on BRAC.
The release from his office states the "The hearing will present the El Paso community with a unique opportunity to speak with both House and Senate leaders about BRAC's local impact and how the state can provide assistance."
That makes sense, and, without being too snarky, it reminded me of this NPT article from a year and a half ago.
Yeah, I'd say the time is now.
Presented is an excerpt from the Nov. 13, 2006 article, with a link to the full piece.
More troops in the desert could increase El Paso air pollution, strain water resources, tear up fragile topsoil and destroy environmental and archeological sites. On the other hand, those troops also will bring in billions of dollars and thousands of jobs.
So at a sparsely attended meeting at Chapin High School Thursday night (Nov. 9), meant to receive public comment on a draft report, hundreds of pages regarding the impacts on 14 areas, from environment to socioeconomics, the two hands were laid on the table.
When Bill Addington, who successfully fought a radioactive waste site in Sierra Blanca and since has become an advocate of the environment, read a statement from a former Fort Bliss biologist noting the consequences of large-scale growth -- increased water rates, traffic congestion, strain on schools, and destruction of unique desert lands -- Chamber of Commerce President Richard Dayoub shot up in his chair, started taking notes, and when it was his turn to speak, fired back.
“Granted, there are problems ... the realities are, the alternative would have been for Fort Bliss to shrink,” Dayoub said. Fort Bliss will have more positive economic impact than, say, the Toyota plant in San Antonio, Dayoub argued; El Paso must “embrace and recognize” the need for the U.S. military to prepare for conflict around the world.
The report under comment, a document called a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS), is meant to analyze how different options for Fort Bliss growth will impact the El Paso region. The analysis follows a decision by the Base Realignment Commission, known as BRAC, to greatly expand troop numbers and activities at Fort Bliss; essentially, once the community put its best face forward, convincing the military that water was not an issue, that schools and other infrastructure could handle a population increase, the deal was done. Now the public has a chance to analyze the deal in detail, through the SEIS.
While we were there to see the desert, since we spent plenty of time in the vehicles moving from site to site, I started reading the SEIS. That’s when I realized what a resource the document was, and how many impacts Fort Bliss has on the area, and how the base expansion might be a bit of a test in many ways.
-- The draft states that El Paso’s water resources would be stretched to the limit as early as 2010, depending on the number of troops. To make up the difference, El Paso will increase water bills by up to 5 percent a year for the next 20 years; in addition, the utility will have to begin importing water by 2030, and possibly as early as 2010. The estimated cost of the infrastructure to get water from the utility’s “water ranches” about 100 miles to the east is $600 million.
-- Noise levels would increase with arms training, possibly enough to be heard in some off-post areas, including Chaparral, N.M.
-- The number of school-age children associated with Fort Bliss would jump under Alternative 4 to 39,000.
-- A question brought up during the public comment, but not in the draft SEIS, is whether Fort Bliss would be test-firing any weapons with depleted uranium, used to tip bullets because of its weight and armor-piercing capability. When it hits, it creates radioactive dust, and has proven to be a cleanup problem on the battlefield and training range -- for example, at Jefferson Proving Grounds in Indiana. Bob Geyer, who asked the question, said he was told depleted uranium would not be used at Fort Bliss, and he requested that the promise be put in writing in the final SEIS.
On the drive home, with several people in the car, a lively discussion about what we saw, and what was in the SEIS, ensued. What does it matter if some desert is destroyed, given the enormous need and desire by El Paso’s leaders to expand Bliss? And what is the value of some desert land, compared to billions of dollars, compared to jobs, compared to providing a livelihood for thousands of El Pasoans? What about the morality of depending on a war economy, or the long-term dependence on the federal government’s largesse? In Dayoub’s Thursday night comments, he pointed out the significance of Bliss -- 15 percent of El Paso’s economy, a percentage expected to grow.
More questions: Are the desert issues as significant as, say, the water issue, or air pollution, or the cost to schools, roads, and the social services?
Big questions, for which there are no easy or definitive answers. In the end, even the ardent defender of nature for its own sake, rather than the value it can bring, saw the difficulty of making his argument.
But he had a counter, one that I can’t get out of my mind: Somebody has to say these things, even if they don’t prevail, even if it’s not popular, or even if on balance the needs of the community outweigh the other considerations, so there’s a record that some people valued what was here, or questioned the value of economics over all else, and at least were able to bring an opposing view to the table.
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