Air Force plans for cleaner, greener future

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez
  • Air Force Print News
In the 1980s, firefighter training was straightforward: light a fire and see how quickly and safely it can be extinguished.

So in fire-training pits at Air Force bases around the world, jet fuel was regularly sprayed onto old aircraft carcasses and the surrounding ground. The fuel was ignited and firefighters practiced their firefighting and rescue techniques.

While that kind of training is valuable, the techniques created environmental problems the Air Force is dealing with today.

"The rains would come and wash that fuel into the infield of the runway," said Maj. Gen. L. Dean Fox, the Air Force civil engineer.

When unburned jet fuel seeps into the ground after a rain, it can create underground fuel plumes that can contaminate groundwater.

In addition to the environmental problems associated with firefighter training, the Air Force used underground, single-walled fuel tanks to store jet fuel. Over time, some of those tanks corroded and allowed fuel to seep into the ground. Aircraft maintainers would rinse industrial solvents off a flightline and the solvent usually ended up in the ground.

These practices seem inconceivable today; at that time they were considered standard industry practice.

The Air Force is ultimately responsible for cleaning up environmental damage resulting from its operations. Before a base can be closed under the Base Realignment and Closure process, for instance, the Air Force must address any contamination issues.

Active Air Force bases are not exempt from environmental regulations and must remain regulator-compliant. Though restoration and remediation actions are expensive, they must be completed to protect human health and the environment and comply with environmental laws.

"We characterize the restoration program as cleaning up legacy contamination," General Fox said. "The Air Force doesn't use those legacy practices today and will not use them in the future. Instead, we plan ahead for how we will deal with contamination, by minimizing or even eliminating pollution in the first place.

"We are more proactive in using different, non-contaminating fuels for our live-fire training, for instance. And we don't install single-wall underground storage tanks anymore," the general said. "The Air Force is constantly looking for new ways to minimize the risk of contamination. Industry methods of construction and standard practices of today are far more environmentally friendly than they were in the past."

Today, the Air Force's environmental efforts are wide-ranging. As a result of new industry practices and the availability of innovative technology, the service practices safer handling of contaminants, purchases fewer hazardous materials, manages hazardous material more strictly, recycles, purchases renewable energy and acts as good stewards of Air Force lands and the threatened and endangered species that live on them, the general said.

The Air Force has evolved to a more environmentally friendly organization, a service that manages its lands wisely and protects resources so it can continue to train and fight.

"We have come a long way, and a lot of it was through the foresight of our environmentally conscious leaders in the late 1980s and early 1990s," General Fox said.

Back then, the Air Force had nearly 250 "open enforcement actions" it was forced to deal with. These were violations of environmental regulations that the Air Force had to address to be compliant.

"We went hard after cleaning up underground storage tanks, fire training facilities, wastewater treatment plants and a lot of the major infrastructure items that caused us to be out of compliance with environmental law," he said. "We actually bought out those requirements in the 1993 and 1994 construction programs."

Those early Air Force cleanup activities reduced the number of enforcement actions from 250 to about 30 a year. Of course, there are always new contaminants to be cleaned up and new contaminated sites being discovered. The Air Force will address those as well.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense have given the Air Force until 2014 to complete investigations and begin cleanup of contaminated sites it knows about today. But General Fox said the Air Force has found ways to expedite that process so land can be remediated more quickly.

"Between us and the EPA, we are the experts on how to clean up hydrocarbon fuel-contaminated sites," General Fox said. "We know how to clean that up. So rather than study the sites for many years, we streamline the process and get on with the cleanup."

The general said the Air Force will group sites together so they can be cleaned up at the same time. And the service will also rely on experienced contractors to perform cleanup actions.

"For the future, what you will see is that we will beat the goals laid out for us by DOD," General Fox said. "That means a cleaner environment, with some of those sites being cleaned up earlier. It also means a financial savings for the Air Force, and it means we are getting on with business in a proactive posture."

Maintaining environmental compliance means the Air Force must continue to be smart in the way it manages potential contaminants and hazardous materials. It must plan ahead and make environmental stewardship every Airman's job.

"We want to work with the environmental regulators to avoid becoming violators," General Fox said. "We know the law; we know what we have to comply with. Environmental stewardship is not an engineer responsibility; it is everybody's responsibility.

"It is very important for us and in everything we do -- from an operations standpoint, from a logistics standpoint, from a day-to-day training standpoint -- so that we continue to protect our nation's precious natural resources to enhance our capabilities for future operations," General Fox said.