BENNINGTON — The National Guard armory is undergoing an intensive cleaning of the basement and other areas with the aim of reducing lead dust test readings to below the Guard’s new stricter standard.
In part because of the ongoing cleanup and other renovation work, the town remains interested in acquiring the building, Town Manager Stuart Hurd said this week, although he said any agreement would not be likely to move forward for several years.
The two-story brick structure at 100 Franklin Lane was constructed in 1924 and sits behind the town offices. It has been eyed for a municipal building to house the Public Works Department and other town offices, and possibly for town meeting space or a youth center.
About five years ago, a tentative proposal involved a swap for 22 acres of the former Jard Co. factory parcel on Bowen Road, which the town owns, to be used for a new armory. But a memorandum of agreement to that effect has expired, Hurd said.
Capt. Dyana Allen, state public affairs officer with the Vermont National Guard, said Catamount Environmental was awarded the $24,750 cleanup contract in September. The contractor is focusing on the basement, where an indoor firing range was located until 1999, and on equipment stored in the building, although its work includes other areas throughout the armory.
Maj. Jacob Roy, program manager for construction and facilities management with the Vermont Army National Guard, said such contracts are awarded with the understanding that the lead dust levels will meet the 40 micrograms per square foot of surface that the Guard recently adopted as the acceptable threshold.
He said the figure is the threshold used by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. Previously, the Guard used the Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard of 200 micrograms per square foot.
“The contractors that the National Guard hires to do lead cleaning and remediation are required to meet the HUD standards,” Roy said, adding that it is “the practice of the Vermont Guard to have a third party conduct (testing) to ensure that cleaning and remediation contractors have met those standards.”
He said a high reading of 1,400 micrograms of lead per square foot was found in a surface sample collected in January.
The high readings were found in the basement where the firing range was located, while lower levels were found in the drill hall on the main floor and other areas of the armory — most below 100 micrograms per square foot. Allen said the firing range was dismantled and the basement cleaned in 1999.
Lead dust contamination in hundreds of National Guard armories around the country has been identified as a potential health issue since the 1990s, primarily from bullets being fired in indoor shooting ranges. The Portland Oregonian newspaper highlighted the issue in a lengthy Dec. 4 investigative article.
According to that report, three other armories in Vermont were found to have lead levels exceeding the HUD standard. They are in Waterbury, Berlin and Morrisville.
“All armories have been appropriately tested and remediated,” Vermont National Guard spokesman Maj. Christopher Gookin told the Oregonian.
The Guard uses the Bennington building for administrative office space and some training. Because of another ongoing project there to bring the building into compliance with federal ADA access requirements, the most recent public event was a mixed martial arts tournament and classes in February 2015.
Public events, held on the main floor of the building, were discontinued in 2015 to allow for the ADA access improvement project, Roy said. In past decades, the armory also has been the site of teen dances and other events, according to the Bennington Banner.
Roy said the contractor in the accessibility project, NRC Environmental Services, is renovating other parts of the basement and bathrooms and adding a lift to the exterior of the building.
He said the armory has roughly 20,500 square feet of floor space.
The tentative arrangement with the town to swap properties came around the time the Guard was looking for a parcel in Bennington County to build a new readiness center. However, federal funding for the project — then estimated at $10 million — was not available as soon as expected and apparently is still years from being released.
Hurd said it is his understanding, based on conversations with Guard officials, that it could be six to seven years before the federal funding will be available for a new Bennington center.
The cleanup and renovations to comply with the federal Americans With Disabilities Act should answer some questions town officials had about the armory, Hurd said, but funding and other contingencies would have to align for both parties before the type of swap once proposed could reach the contractual level.
“We are looking at all the options at present,” he said, adding that the town remains flexible in its efforts to create a new public works facility, particularly after the estimated cost of constructing a town facility on the Bowen Road parcel came in more than $1 million above expectations.
“We are willing to explore an agreement,” Hurd said.
Allen said the Guard has had preliminary discussions with the town about the disposition of the armory. “The Vermont Army National Guard makes a concerted effort to include local municipalities during the disposition of a facility to find the best possible outcome for the community, the building and the Guard,” Allen said.
The armory is the base for Bravo Troop, 1st Squadron, 172nd Cavalry Regiment, 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Mountain), which is associated with the Army’s 10th Mountain Division.