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Environmental Progress - Fall 2001

Decades Old Nike Missile Sites Taking on New Identities

Former symbols of force are evolving into logos
for re-use -- often contaminated

 

Once highly armed military batteries, Illinois' Nike surface-to-air missile sites are now nearly indistinguishable from the properties that surround them. They may be empty fields, parks, or golf courses. Some are civil defense centers, highway maintenance yards, business parks. At one site, the old military structures are now a career center. (See adjoining story on the Hecker site.)

Built by the military, the structures at each site tend to be identical to comparable buildings at other Nike sites. Unfortunately, another thing these sites frequently share is an identity as cases of environmental contamination that must be addressed.

Nike missile magazine access doors.
Access doors leading to the underground missile magazines show the effects of time.

The IEPA, with U.S.EPA and the Department of Defense (DOD), are in the preliminary stage of identifying contamination associated with these sites, working to lay groundwork for future clean ups. Though some investigation and remediation has moved forward, in many cases it seems that as the IEPA expands tests in some areas, more concerns over potential contaminants arise.

At many former Nike sites, underground storage tanks and contaminated soil have been removed, but the final cleanup is not over. The scope of work has been simplified in many cases because experience has shown there are likely to be consistent areas of contamination. Since operations were fairly consistent from battery to battery, the same types of contamination will often be found in similar areas at other batteries.

In 1957, with tensions running high from Russia's launch of the Sputnik satellite and the first successful atomic bomb test, many people feared that "the bomb" would hit unprepared American cities and military installations without obstacle. A perception of the need for an effective anti-aircraft system was widespread. By the mid-1950s, America's full-blown superpower rivalry with Russia entailed not only offensive developments, but plans for a kind of "last line of defense" against the Communists.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began building air defense systems to surround 40 U.S. cities and military installations to be an effective defense against high-flying Soviet bombers. The Nike air defense missiles, named after the Greek goddess of victory, were at their production peak by 1963, installed in more than 300 batteries. Used to detect and identify, and with the potential to destroy enemy aircraft, Nike missiles represented the most advanced surface-to-air anti-aircraft missile of the time. The general public had little knowledge of these sites. Often located well outside major population areas in order to allow enough time to intercept enemy missiles before they reached their bomb-release point, Nike sites were given little publicity. Many batteries were closed long before residents knew what had been in place in their own figurative backyards.

Nike missile magazine silo doors.By the 1970s, the advancement of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles technology rendered the Nike batteries obsolete. By 1974, the United States had deactivated most of its batteries. The few exceptions, in Alaska and Florida, were deactivated in later years. Upon deactivation, batteries were cleared of all vital military equipment, missiles were disassembled and shipped to other military installations but battery infrastructure such as fencing and connecting buildings were left as they stood. The Nike missile sites were soon largely forgotten.

The former military sites often took on a variety of civilian functions. Some were sold to be redeveloped into industrial and commercial sites. Other Nike batteries across the country remained under military control, providing combat-related uses such as Army Reserve and National Guard training centers. Some were merely abandoned and eventually fell into disrepair.

Two of the most intact sites in Illinois are Nike missile base C-84 near Barrington and Nike missile base SL-40 in Hecker, the best-preserved battery in the state. Barrington's C-84 typifies the 23 batteries surrounding the Chicago/Gary region. Once used as an archival repository for Lake County, C-84 is now up for sale and redevelopment.

Nike missile magazine silo doors.
At some sites, the missile magazines are still operational, to accommodate non-military contemporary use.

Occupied since 1968 by the Beck Area Vocational School, most of ST-40's original buildings remain intact. Even the elevators at the launch area, used to bring missiles to the surface for firing, have been kept in working order, since the school used the missile magazine as a repair shop.

Investigation and remediation of these Nike sites falls under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program for Formerly Used Defense Sties (DERP-FUDS). Started in the 1970s, DERP-FUDS was a project of the DOD as a pilot environmental restoration program to respond to known environmental contamination at former DOD sites. Their goal at the Nike sites is eventual clean closure of these former military batteries. This goal fits handily into the IEPA's brownfield project approach, returning the abandoned military batteries into safe, productive properties. Since the 1980s, the DOD has been studying the potential and actual areas of contamination emanating from the sites. Day-to-day operations at the batteries produced potential contamination in the soil and groundwater sources. At the missile assembly area, there is extreme potential for contamination from Stoddard-type solvents, chlorinated solvents, alcohols, paints, waste fuels and anti-corrosion compounds that were commonly funneled through floor drains to a seepage pit or were disposed of via surface dumping that led to soil and groundwater contamination. Research also indicates there may have been multiple seepage pits at each battery along with illegal dumping and other contamination sources.

Nike missile battery site C-70, located in Naperville, is comprised of 47 acres. Currently 33 acres of the former launch site have been renovated into a business park known as "Park Place of Naperville." The remaining 14 acres are owned by the Naperville Park District and are used as a recreational sports complex. Preliminary testing found a trichloroethylene (TCE) plume that has resulted in water contamination above the federal drinking water standards. An organic chemical used as a solvent for fats, greases and waxes, TCE is highly volatile and toxic. Though the drinking water has been tested and, where necessary, alternate water supplies have been provided, there is concern because of the TCE contamination potential to affect more residential wells.

Steps toward a full investigation and remediation of the former Nike sites are currently underway. Though some investigation work has been completed at a portion of the 21 state batteries, the IEPA is working closely with the Army Corps of Engineers to complete the investigation. Taking a holistic approach, the Corps and the IEPA are assessing the contamination from site to site in order to identify the most effective means of investigation and eventual remediation. Though the remediation process is in preliminary phases, the IEPA and the Corps intend to keep the public informed of the progress in investigating and cleaning up these contaminated sites.

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