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As USACE plans more work in Buxton, questions persist over scope of that work

The Army Corps of Engineers working on pipe removal at the Buxton site

Posted on June 19, 2024

By Kip Tabb  | Outer Banks Voice

The US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) announced on June 13 that it will perform additional testing for contaminants in the soil at the former Buxton Naval station.

According to the press release, the USACE will “conduct geophysical work to identify any potential fuel distribution components remaining at the Buxton Naval Facility, a Formerly Used Defense Site…as soon as late June or early July 2024.”

The additional testing is welcome news to Buxton Civic Association member Heather Jennette. “We are pleased that they are going to do some more testing,” she said, but added that “It would be nice to know exactly what they mean by geophysical work because that’s a really broad term…I think that’s a really big umbrella term.”

In May, the USACE removed 70-80 feet of pipe and contaminated soil after months of complaints of a strong odor of fuel and reports of an oil sheen in the surf zone of Buxton Beach. Approximately a quarter mile of beach was closed and remains closed in response to the contamination. The USACE had indicated that testing results of soils samples would be available by early June, but they have not yet been released.

The site was a submarine monitoring station from 1956 to 1982. Because the facility ceased operations before 1986, it is covered under the terms of the Formerly Used Defense Sites or FUDS Act of 1986. The USACE is responsible for cleaning up FUDS locations. But as the USACE announces plans to do more work on the site, questions and concerns over the scope of that work persist.

In 1985, before the FUDS Act went into effect, the USACE demolished two buildings on the site under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program (DERP). That work included “building demolition and debris removal,” according to an Environmental Impact Statement. However, since the FUDS Act was passed, there has been no additional work done to clean up debris or buildings. And that is where there is disagreement on the scope of USACE responsibilities lies.

At a May 14 community meeting in Buxton USACE Colonel Ron Sturgeon acknowledged USACE FUDS funding only covers contaminants, stating “The specific funding and authorities the US Army Corps of Engineers receives [is] direct funding from Congress for this. Underneath the budget program itself, we cannot remove the structures.

On the USACE’s Buxton Naval Facility website, it states that “When Congress created the FUDS Program in 1986, building demolition and debris removal work was limited to“unsafe’ buildings and structures…These conditions did not exist when the property was transferred from Navy control in 1982. For these reasons, USACE does not have the authority under the FUDS Program to address these conditions.”

But on June 5, a group of nearly a dozen local officials and activists—ranging from Dare County Manager Bobby Outten to Julie Furr Youngman and Elizabeth Rasheed of the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) to Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce CEO Karen Brown—signed a letter to the Chair and Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. The letter pushed for more aggressive cleanup action by the USACE. (Click here to read the full letter.)

“We are concerned that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers…has not remediated the dangers left behind by the Department of Defense…and by its insistence that it lacks the authority to do most of the work necessary to restore the site,’” the letter stated. “We ask that the subcommittee conduct oversight and, if necessary, authorize the Corps to remediate the hazards and restore this treasured unit of the National Park System.”

It concluded by asking “that you conduct oversight and grant the Corps the authority and funding necessary to fully remediate all of the contamination—both chemical and physical—at the Buxton FUDS.” “We believe that they have the current authority in the federal law to clean this up. There’s an obligation from the original special use permit and also under the law that governs defense sites,” SELC Senior Attorney Youngman told the Voice.

At this point, It is unclear what the next steps in cleaning up the Buxton site will be. But according to Brian Harris of the Buxton Civice Association, “Everybody knows that there’s an issue. It shouldn’t be this hard to come up with the plan to fix it.”


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