Panel hears pleas not to close bases

Thousands attend hearing in New England in bid to keep facilities open

July 07, 2005|By Elizabeth Mehren | Elizabeth Mehren,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BOSTON - To Glenn Gauvin, it made no sense to close the country's oldest military shipyard. So Gauvin, 41, joined more than 3,000 other supporters of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard yesterday to press their case before an independent review panel.

Many made the 90-minute trip to Boston in a caravan of more than 50 school buses. In bright yellow "Save Our Shipyard" T-shirts, the Portsmouth contingent filled nearly every seat in a cavernous convention center ballroom.

"We've got the lowest cost per man-hour, the highest on-time delivery, and we just received a star status award," said Gauvin, a mechanical inspector at the facility in Kittery, Maine, for the past 13 years.

"Why are they closing it?" Gauvin asked. "You tell me. That is why we are here."

For eight hours, five members of the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, known as BRAC, listened as delegates from military bases in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine argued that their installations should not be closed. The speakers included five governors, 10 U.S. senators, nine congressmen and a plethora of local officials affected by the Pentagon's decision to streamline domestic military operations.

Thousands whose lives are directly tied to the eight imperiled bases also seized the opportunity to air their views.

"I've lived by the New London Submarine Base [in Groton, Conn.] almost all my life," said retired Coast Guard officer James Sheehan, 73. "It plays an important part, militarily, in our country's defense."

By proposing to close the Connecticut submarine facility and consolidate undersea operations in Kings Bay, Ga., "it seems to me they are putting too many apples in one cart," Sheehan said. "They want to put it all down there, and my God, if you set off one atomic bomb, you'd lose everything."

From Anchorage to Buffalo, meetings in nine other regions where bases are to be closed brought out similar crowds in recent weeks. A hearing two weeks ago in South Dakota drew more than 7,500 participants.

The 19 public sessions have no legal bearing. BRAC Commission Chairman Anthony J. Principi said the meetings, including several this week and next, were intended to gather information and "to assure everyone that public input is taken into consideration."

Over and over, the commissioners heard testimony that the decision to close the bases was arbitrary and based on flawed data. Lawmakers and private citizens alike also contended that closing the facilities would weaken national and regional security without necessarily saving the huge amounts of money suggested by the Pentagon. Some officials said that the costs of closing the bases could outweigh any possible benefits, with states and municipalities picking up the price of environmental cleanups.

"We have struggled, mightily, to reconcile [this decision] with common sense," Connecticut Gov. M. Jodi Rell said of the determination to close the sprawling submarine base on the Thames River. More than 7,500 military personnel are employed at the New London facility, along with 650 reservists and several thousand civilian workers and contractors.

The Connecticut base represents the largest loss of jobs of any of the 33 bases scheduled to be closed. Twenty-nine others will be "realigned" - pared down or consolidated.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

What's next

The Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission will hold a public meeting from 8:30 a.m. to noon tomorrow in the Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College in Towson.

The commission must present its final recommendations to President Bush by Sept. 8.

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