The Air National Guard no longer flies F-15 fighter patrols from the Air National Guard Base at Otis. Intelligence collection and analysis activities are also finished at the military base. The golden days of intercepting radio and electronic communications and photographs at high-priority, strategic locations from surveillance aircraft and drones here are a thing of the past. With much of the surrounding area designated as a Superfund site, the future of Otis seems uncertain to many people.
Can anything be done to reimagine the area and promote its sustainability and conservation potential? One conservationist has a dynamic plan.
What about Otis’ Superfund Site Status?
Otis Air National Guard Base is an installation located within Joint Base Cape Cod, a military training facility on the western portion of Cape Cod in Barnstable County, Massachusetts. Military operations starting in the late 1930s included disposal of hazardous materials. Fuels, motor oils, cleaning solvents, and associated wastes were dumped on the property via landfills, dry wells, sumps, and the sewage treatment plant.
Many human actions polluted the land. Think of it — chemical and fuel spills. Fire training activities. Sewage treatment plant accidents. Landfill and drainage structure operations. All of these and other activities contaminated site soil and ground water. Investigations in 1983 and 1984 found volatile organic compounds and heavy metals on-site, in nearby monitoring wells, and in several hundred private wells.
The EPA designated Otis a Superfund site. It was included on the National Priorities List in November, 1989, which documented the site cleanup plan in over 15 Record of Decision decisions.
The site overlies the Sagamore Lens, which was designated by the EPA as a sole source aquifer under the Safe Drinking Water Act. A Federal Facility Agreement governs the Superfund cleanup, which has included the installation of water supply lines to affected residents, installation of municipal water supply well treatment systems, treatment of 100,000 tons of soil, and construction and operation of many on-site and off-site ground water treatment plants. Much of the water supply in the surrounding area needed to be converted from wells to municipal water sources as a direct result of the threats from waste plumes in the groundwater. Treatment includes focus on extraction and reinjection wells and about 10.6 million gallons of contaminated ground water per day; ongoing treatment systems will be operated and maintained until cleanup levels are met.
As of February, 2023, there are 5 groundwater plumes undergoing extraction and treatment with a combined system rate of 7.1 million gallons per day. The Air Force’s land use control program monitors groundwater remedies to ensure cleanup levels are met. Next, the site will undergo a legally required 5-year review to ensure previous remediation efforts at the sites continue to protect public health and the environment. Once the review is complete, its findings will be posted to the EPA website in a final report.
The Plan to Transform the Military Base at Otis into a Sustainable Community
The Association to Preserve Cape Cod (APCC) works toward a carbon-neutral Cape Cod where waters are restored and protected, natural landscapes and wildlife habitat are preserved, and where growth respects the character of town centers and rural lands. Its executive director, Andrew Gottlieb, is floating an idea in which housing would be built on unused portions of the base, while a designated permanent conservation restriction on another 15,000 acres would protect the Upper Cape’s fragile water supply.
“We’re not experts in national security and military preparedness,” Gottlieb acknowledged. Without the Air National Guard’s intelligence mission, though, “doesn’t it make sense to take a fresh look at what opportunities are presented to provide other uses of that property?”
The APCC has suggested that Governor Healey’s administration formally evaluate retaining the current essential base functions such as the Coast Guard while utilizing the underdeveloped, already disturbed areas of the base to develop much-needed housing to help address the Cape’s lack of affordable housing. That action would be paired with strengthening the current “faux protections” of the Upper Cape Water Supply Reserve on the northern 15,000 acres with a permanent conservation restriction.
Gottlieb wrote in the Commonwealth Magazine that such a move would represent “a generational opportunity to solve some of the Cape’s most difficult economic and environmental challenges.” Acknowledging that the APCC proposal reflects “a major undertaking that challenges some of the accepted norms governing Cape Cod,” Gottlieb is ready to think outside the box. “The climate, water, and housing challenges we face require transformational thinking,” he insists. “We are simply not going to solve these existential problems without being willing to challenge and alter the status quo.”
What types of transformations of the former military base at Otis are Gottlieb and the APCC envisioning?
Who would own Otis? The state would continue to own the land. That could work, if the feds protect the area through land-use restrictions on the site of the proposed project. Instead of thirsty developers with a “the highest bid takes all” mentality, prices for a mix of rentals and owned homes would be constant and reasonable.
Conservation land: Gottlieb says the opportunity to implement real and permanent protections to the 15,000 acres that comprise the Upper Cape Water Supply Reserve is the “most significant open space preservation project remaining on Cape Cod.” The reserve protects and provides water to 5 Cape communities and is the largest remaining contiguous forested area remaining outside of the National Seashore.
Groundwater: Mashpee and Falmouth have lost public wells to pollution in the past 3 years. Sandwich has also been harmed. The other major problem Gottlieb sees the opportunity to solve — or at least mitigate — is the Cape’s freshwater supply from a single source aquifer, specifically the groundwater in the Upper Cape.
Anaerobically digest organic material: Gottlieb says there is an opportunity here to plan a “vibrant carbon-neutral community.” It would emerge through heating and cooling provided by redevelopment of the wastewater treatment plant to include anaerobic digestion and power provided by renewable energy. Items that have historically been trucked off-Cape would be processed on-site. According to the EPA, multiple organic materials can be combined in one digester, including manure; food waste (i.e., processing, distribution and consumer generated materials); energy crops; crop residues; and fats, oils, and greases from restaurant grease traps, and many other sources. Co-digestion can increase biogas production from low-yielding or difficult-to-digest organic waste.
Biogas generation: The Otis site could generate a biogas that can provide heat, electricity, and cooling to the housing units. With the right processing, biogas can be upgraded to replace mined natural gas for use as a fuel for electricity production, ground transportation, and commercial and residential buildings. (Note: By and large, it’s better to rely on zero-carbon sources like wind and solar to generate electricity and then electrify as many end-uses such as ground transport and buildings as possible.)
Treatment plant: Gottlieb says the company that owns the treatment plant would love to expand its capabilities and offer services to surrounding towns.
Renewable energy: The Air Force installed a total of 3-1.5 megawatt wind turbines – one in 2009 and two more in 2011 – to offset electrical costs for powering numerous ground water cleanup systems at the military base. While not outlined in Gottlieb’s initial planning, it makes sense for more wind turbines to be added to the former military base.
The move toward a sustainable future for Otis will be methodical and arduous. There is hope for substantive improvement, though. “We’re open to the idea that a thoughtful, open discussion about what the remaining needs are can yield a thoughtful outcome,” Gottlieb acknowledged. “This is too important to ignore.”
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