At meeting, Hallac addresses Buxton contamination 

By on March 28, 2024

CHNS Superintendent Dave Hallac explaining the history of the military installations at Buxton. (Photo credit: Kip Tabb/OBV)
Dare County Commissioner Ervin Bateman addressing the Buxton audience. (Photo credit: Kip Tabb/OBV)
Coast Guard Captain Timothy List explaining the concerns of the Coast Guard. (Photo credit: Kip Tabb/OBV)
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But some uncertainty over who is responsible for cleanup

Since last September, approximately three-tenths of a mile of beach at the Hatteras Lighthouse has been closed because of pollutants from a former Naval base contaminating the beach and water in Buxton.

To address the concerns of residents and property owners, Dave Hallac, Superintendent of Cape Hatteras National Seashore, spoke to an audience of about 90 people at the Buxton Fessenden Center on March 27.

At this point, there seems to be uncertainty about how the cleanup work will be done. According to Hallac, under current law, the United States Corps of Engineers (USACE) is responsible for cleaning up pollution caused by Formerly Used Defense Sites (FUDS) that closed before 1986. However, a press release issued by USACE just before the March 27 meeting seems to contend that the site may no longer qualify under the FUDS guidelines, suggesting that USACE is not responsible for the cleanup.

“I’ve been trying to work through this situation for just about seven months now,” Hallac said at the meeting. “I thought it was a good time to share with you everything that we know about it, so you can be informed and understand what’s going on.”

Attending the meeting with Hallac was Coast Guard Captain Timothy List, Sector North Carolina Commander. To explain what was happening at the site and who was responsible for cleaning up the petroleum, Hallac provided an overview of the history of military installations at the base of the lighthouse.

Aerial view of the Buxton Naval Station on the site from 1956 to 1982. (Photo NPS)
Ancient peat remnant on the beach saturated with petroleum byproduct. (Photo NPS)
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From 1956 to 1982, there was a Naval listening station scanning the ocean for suspicious sounds. In 1982, the Navy departed, and Coast Guard Station Group Cape Hatteras was on the site until 2004.

The pollution that has closed the beaches has been identified as coming from underground fuel tanks that the Navy installed during their time at the base. Although the fuel tanks have been removed, some fuel pipes and fuel leaching into the soil has continued to create a strong diesel-like odor in the area according to a number of residents who have used the beach. Oil on the water has also been detected in the surf zone.

The site is considered a Formally Used Defense Site or FUDS, and under federal law, Hallac explained, “The Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), who were not able to attend tonight, is the government agency that is responsible for restoring Department of Defense sites that were used before 1986.”

Because, according to Hallac, the USACE is responsible for restoring the site, all actions have to go through them, even though the Navy’s use of the property created the pollution. He did stress, however, that he had been in touch with the Navy and that, “The Navy has been actually very responsive.”

Hallac described frequent communication with the USACE, noting that “We are having regular meetings with some of the most senior members of the Army Corps of Engineers and urging them to respond to this,” he said.

Although Hallac pointed to his regular meeting with the USACE, he was not aware of a press release from that organization that was issued about an hour before the meeting.

The press release did not include any indication whether the USACE was planning on mitigation efforts in the future, instead recommending the development of “a predictive model, in as much as one can be developed, [that] would allow USACE to be proactive and have a team in place, to not only verify the conditions, but to try to find the source.”

The press release also called into question whether the site would qualify under FUDS guidelines.

“Remedial action using the FUDS Program is not authorized due to an unknown source. Additionally, the concrete structures that were uncovered after years of erosion on the beach were not associated with the petroleum or the initial cleanup of the area that occurred in the 1990s, which also means those remnants are currently ineligible for removal under the FUDS Program,” the press release noted.

For his part, List explained why other agencies could not take the lead in cleaning up the contamination. “This is not an active release of a tank or some object. This is an erosion event that is exposing a previously used site with contaminated soil,” he said.

Erosion does appear to be playing a role in what is currently happening. Hallac described a beach where ancient peat bogs have been exposed and are now contaminated.

“There’s been so much erosion. You can see the tree stumps. You can see the roots of the historic marsh from thousands of years ago…and some chunks of this organic soil that is clearly contaminated with petroleum. It smells like somebody might have poured diesel on that soil,” Hallac said.

There was concern in the audience about how to proceed and what could be done by the people most affected by what was happening, with questions about what could be done locally.

Dare County Commissioner Ervin Bateman told the audience that “These last three days [Dare Commissioners] Bob Woodard, Danny Couch and Wally Overman, have been in Washington, DC meeting with Senator Budd. They also met with [Senator] Tom Tillis’ office.,” he said. “[Representative] Greg Murphy is in a meeting tomorrow with a representative from [State Senator] Hanig. Those guys have been talking…This is not just a Buxton problem. This is a Dare County problem and North Carolina problem.”

But, Hallac noted, it does come back to how the USACE will address the problems that are occurring at Buxton, and he emphasized that he has no knowledge what their plans may be.

“We are really doing our best to work with the Army Corps of Engineers,” he said. “They have not responded to do any action at this point in time, and I cannot speak for them.”

SEE ALSO: Public health advisory issued for Buxton Beach Access 

Cape Hatteras National Seashore temporarily expands beach closure at Buxton Beach Access

See what people are saying:

  • Jean Martin

    As usual the government representatives talk out the corner of their mouth without saying anything useful. This is an issue that should be addressed and not tiptoed around finger pointing. Ultimately, this was not at the hands of the private community but the actions of government agency. The US government should take the lead and charge the appropriate agency with clean up and get this done. If this would have been caused by the fault of a civilian identity the EPA would already be all over them and require a thorough clean up no matter the cost.

    Sunday, Mar 31 @ 10:21 am