ARLINGTON—Virginia's top elected officials urged an independent commission Thursday to save Fort Monroe from closure, saying the cost of cleaning up the historic Hampton base could top $1 billion. A bipartisan panel of congressmen, senators and mayors, led by Gov. Mark R. Warner, also sought to preserve more than 2,000 jobs at Fort Eustis and safeguard Oceana Naval Air Station from the closure list.
The two-hour hearing before the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which drew hundreds of residents to a packed hotel ballroom, marked the first and likely only chance state lawmakers will have to make a public case on behalf of Virginia's bases.
The Pentagon wants to close Fort Monroe -- by far the most endangered Virginia base -- to save an estimated $686 million over 20 years.
But state officials faulted the Pentagon on Thursday for ignoring the high costs of environmental cleanup, including the need to dig up unexploded ordnance. Those costs, they said, could range from $200 million to more than $1 billion -- an expense that would wipe out any projected savings.
"The bottom line is that the possible closure of Fort Monroe will lead to arguably one of the most convoluted, complicated, costly and controversial closings in our nation's history," said Sen. George Allen, R-Va.
A similar strategy saved the fort in 1993, when it was last targeted for closure.
The Pentagon, in its written recommendations, acknowledged that Fort Monroe has unexploded munitions that could require extensive cleanup. But defense officials have long maintained those expenses should not be included in the cost analysis of closure because the Pentagon has a legal obligation to clean up the property even if the base stays open.
Lawmakers argued it makes little sense to discount those costs, since they won't have to be paid in the near future as long as the base stays open. If the point of closing bases is to save money, they said, shutting down Fort Monroe is counter-productive.
"If you close it, you clean it, and the whole point of this thing is saving money," said U.S. Rep. Robert C. Scott, D-Newport News.
Commissioners asked no questions at the hearing and gave little hint of their intentions. The nine-member panel, appointed by President Bush with input from Congress, has until Sept. 8 to recommend any changes to the Pentagon's closure list.
"We have to weigh the environmental impact we heard on Fort Monroe today," commission chairman Anthony Principi told reporters later. "We have to make sure the return on investment is a wise one as well."
Hampton Mayor Ross Kearney told the commission the fort's 500-acre site has a complicated legal history that makes ownership of the property difficult to determine and could subject the government to years of litigation.
He said officials recently discovered records indicating the presence of a cemetery for slaves and an Indian burial ground on the property.
Closing Monroe would cost Hampton 3,564 military and civilian jobs and pack a powerful emotional punch. Named for President James Monroe, the fort opened in 1823 to guard the waters of Hampton Roads. It now serves as headquarters for the Army's Training and Doctrine Command.
That command would be moved to nearby Fort Eustis if Fort Monroe is closed, under the Pentagon's plan. But Eustis, an Army transportation center, would nonetheless lose more than 2,000 jobs that would be diverted to a number of other bases.
The fort's Aviation Logistics School would move to Fort Rucker, Ala. A transportation center and school would move to Fort Lee near Petersburg. And the Army's Surface Deployment and Distribution Command would be consolidated at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois.
Newport News Mayor Joe Frank sought to punch holes in the rationale for all three plans, which he described as costly and illogical. The Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, he said, was just consolidated at Eustis from California and New Jersey in 1995, at substantial expense, and many civilian employees would be unwilling to move to Illinois.
Relocating the transportation school to Fort Lee is impractical, he said, because at least a third of the training requires access to a river and a rail line that Fort Lee doesn't have. And moving the aviation logistics school, which provides helicopter repair training, to Fort Rucker provides little real military value but would cost nearly $500 million, he said.
Lawmakers also sought to cut short the commission's interest in adding Oceana Naval Air Station to the closure list. The commission last week asked the Pentagon for additional information to justify keeping the base open, citing encroachment from surrounding development that can have an impact on safety and training.
Warner said encroachment issues are under control and that Virginia Beach has committed $200 million to improve transportation around the base, which is the city's largest employer.
"If there are questions about Oceana, we hope you will raise them with us," the governor told the four commissioners who attended Thursday's hearing.
The commission is scheduled to decide on July 19 whether Oceana or any other bases should be added to the Pentagon's closure list.
Lawmakers also sought to dispel a concern raised by chairman Principi that Norfolk Naval Station is too "congested" to accept 11 more submarines that would be transferred from the closure of Submarine Base New London in Connecticut.
Norfolk at one time had more than 20 submarines, compared to about a dozen today, said Rep. Thelma Drake, R-Norfolk. "Clearly, there is no danger of Naval Station Norfolk becoming congested," she said. *