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A fallacious argument

There may be solid arguments for keeping MacDill Air Force Base open, but the cost of environmental cleanup isn't one of them. The Air Force says cleaning up the environmental messes at MacDill _ and there are plenty of them _ will cost $15-million. That's a far cry from the number put forth by the Tampa Bay area task force working to keep the base open. The task force says the cost could go as high as $400-million.

The truth likely lies somewhere in between. Either way, it should have no bearing on whether MacDill stays open, because either way, the Air Force will have to clean up its mess.

Mark Flynn, a member of the local task force, argues that the cleanup cost is relevant. He says that if the base stays open, the Air Force may never clean it up. The U.S. Department of Defense has a limited budget for environmental cleanup, he says. It uses those limited funds on the worse bases first. And MacDill, as bad as it is, is far from the worst. If, on the other hand, the base is closed, the Air Force must clean it up immediately. That and other costs, says Flynn, would defer financial benefits from closing the base for at least a quarter of a century.

Flynn and other task force members obviously think this is a strong argument for keeping the base open. Actually, it's just the opposite. The longer the federal government puts off cleaning up the mess at MacDill, the greater the cost becomes. Greater, too, is the chance for further environmental damage. A good example is the two-acre pool of jet fuel that leaked from an underground pipe at MacDill years ago and is now floating on the water table. MacDill officials have known about the problem since 1984 but have yet to clean it up. Meanwhile, environmental officials say, the spill is moving slowly toward Hillsborough Bay, about 1,500 feet away.

The other fallacy behind the task force's argument is that it can be made for many of the other Air Force bases being considered by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission. Indeed, the cleanup bill for MacDill is relatively cheap when compared to those of Castle Air Force Base in California, Loring Air Force Base in Maine and Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan. The Air Force estimates it will cost at least $50-million to restore each of the three.

While it's understandable that local officials here and elsewhere will fight for their parochial interests, the Closure Commission must concern itself with the national interest. When making its decision, the commission should consider the legitimate arguments on both sides, while weeding out the fallacious ones. The cost of environmental cleanup certainly falls in the latter category.