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Totten group slams Army over cleanup

In its first...

By Kathianne Boniello

The members of a civilian advisory group whose mission is to monitor the cleanup of contaminants at Bayside’s Fort Totten slammed a U.S. Army representative Monday night for secretly removing leaking fuel oil tanks at the Civil War-era fort.

In its first meeting since July 1999, the Army Restoration Advisory Board gathered at the Adria Hotel in Bayside to review the removal of 11 oil tanks and between 75 to 100 square yards of oil-contaminated soil in 1999 arranged by Army RAB Co-Chairman Peter Koutroubis.

The Restoration Advisory Board is a civilian advisory group that works with the Army on the cleanup of contaminants at Fort Totten as well as the transfer of the property to the city. Totten is set to change ownership to the city within the next two years.

RAB members said Monday night they had asked Koutroubis to remove the tanks several times since 1996, but he had refused. Koutroubis said the tanks were tested for leaks in 1997 and at that time there was no indication the tanks would leak.

The underground fuel oil tanks had been used to heat housing units on the military base, including some since the 1950s, Koutroubis said. Several of the tanks leaked, which allowed the oil to seep into the surrounding soil.

Bob LoPinto, a RAB member, said the group’s procedure required them to be informed of clean-up activities so they could provide input to the Army.

“For a year we were pushing and you wouldn’t do it and then all of a sudden you did it,” he said of the removal of the fuel oil tanks. “We could have had input and by ruling us out you’ve removed some of that trustworthiness.”

Koutroubis said he thought the group had been working together and had been striving to address all the clean-up issues at the fort.

Fort Totten is a Civil War-era fort that was decommissioned by the Army in 1995 during a wave of base closures around the country. A portion of the fort on the western edge of the nearly 200-acre base is under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard, while the Army owns the remainder. Both federal agencies have undertaken efforts to address contamination on their respective parts of the base.

While the Coast Guard Restoration Advisory Board, or RAB, has met several times in the last two years, the Army RAB has not assembled since July 1999.

Community Co-Chair Larry Ordine expressed anger over what he described as Koutroubis’ secret clean-up efforts.

“Peter is entrusted with the transfer of the property as quickly and inexpensively as possible,” he said. “In all of our conversations when the RAB has asked him to go beyond what is required, he has ubiquitously said no.”

Don Oral, another RAB member, told Koutroubis during the meeting “the perception here is that the government is hiding something — that you just don’t care. Do something so the perception changes.”

Koutroubis denied accusations that he did not care about what happened during the Totten cleanup.

“I’ve always listened to all the recommendations and where we could do something we did,” he said. “I believe so far we’ve worked together in getting every issue addressed. Hopefully, the perception will change.”

Mercury was discovered at the Civil War-era fort in 1985 in a drainpipe of Building 615 by the Coast Guard, which shared the base with the Army. Army Corps officials said the metal was present after years of repairs to mercury-filled torpedo guidance systems, which were maintained at the fort.

The Army, which vacated the base in 1995, agreed to remediate the mercury in May 1998. The city Fire Department was slated to take over the base as parkland in less than a year and a half.

During the discussion over the removal of the fuel oil tanks, LoPinto said “we normally in the past have been provided with work plans before work was done. We had no opportunity to do that in this case. It seems as if it’s a done deal.”

Koutroubis said: “I don’t believe it’s a done deal — it’s just what we came up with to address the problem. For a tank removal I didn’t feel a work plan was necessary. In my mind, it was simple enough. I tried to expedite the process.”

Reach reporter Kathianne Boniello by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 146.

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