Salina offers to clean up former Air Force base

After almost a year of analysis, Salina has put together a proposal to take cleanup of groundwater contamination at the former Schilling Air Force Base out of the hands of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Details, such as how much that would cost and what portion the federal government would pay, haven’t yet been disclosed.

“It is substantial,” is all Tim Rogers, executive director of the Salina Airport Authority, would say about the estimated cost to complete the cleanup. The federal government has spent well more than $20 million on cleanup so far, and its estimates to complete the task run to several times that.

The contamination was left behind after the airport was used by the Air Force between 1942 and 1965. The most prominent issue is a massive plume of trichloroethylene – or TCE – in the groundwater. TCE is a compound that was widely used in solvents.

The plume extends from under the base to the northeast. It has passed under Interstate Highway 135 and is about a mile and half from the nearest city well. Current projections are that it will take 10 to 75 years to reach the first well.

The cleanup proposal was made by a local group made up of the city of Salina, the Salina School District, Kansas State University at Salina and the Salina Airport Authority. Rogers said it was the Corps of Engineers who suggested the local group consider taking over cleanup.

That was in the fall of 2007.

“This process that we thought would take a few weeks has taken a year,” he said. So far, the local entities have paid more than $200,000 to a consulting engineer, who has assembled all the sampling data gathered by the Corps of Engineers since the project was initiated in the 1980s.

Over the years, the local entities have been sharply critical of the way the Corps of Engineers approached its analysis of the problem. Occasionally so too were the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. Dennis Kuhlman, dean of K-State at Salina, said the local entities now have a much clearer picture of the contamination and how it can be cleaned up.

“What we now have is a database that is truly all apples,” he said. “There aren’t any oranges or lemons floating around. Once we got the data together, we learned there is more than one approach. It’s more clearly defined the options available to us.”

This more-complete perspective does not reveal contamination that is significantly worse than was previously understood.

“I have more assurances there is no imminent danger to the city’s water supply,” Rogers said.