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Fort Drum hosts open-house to discuss proposed missile defense site

Gino Geruntino
A small crowd gathered at Carthage High School to learn more about a proposed missile site that could be built at Fort Drum.

Fort Drum near Watertown is one of a handful of sites being considered as an East Coast missile defense site. A meeting was held Tuesday at Carthage High School to gauge the community's interest on the potential project.

Lt. Col. Chris Snipes, with the Missile Defense Agency, says the study being performed right now looks at a variety of factors when it comes to where the prospective site might go.

"What's happening on the installation as far as the wildlife and their habitat, wetlands and things of that nature," Snipes said. "But also we look at it from a community aspect as well. Not Just what's happening on post, but we look at the outstanding community as well. As far as the people, if this site is deployed and Fort Drum is selected, then those people that would work here permanently would be part of the community."

Credit Missile Defense Agency
Visitors were given packets with information like this, showing how exactly a missile interceptor works.

If built, the site would have several different buildings that could possibly fill a nearly 1,000 acre area.

"We would have a missile defense complex that would have some administrative buildings, some warehousing, a missile assembly building, interceptor storage facility," Snipes explained. "So that all plays into our missile defense complex and then also the interceptors themselves."

Lt. Col. Dan Martin, with the Missile Defense Agency, says all of the sites are meant to protect the U.S. from possible attacks by third-world countries like Iran and North Korea.

"Our system is strictly a defensive system," Martin said. "We've never had to use it, and we hope we never will have to use it."

The missiles would not be fired unless they were to be used to protect the nation, and no test firing would be conducted at the East Coast location.

JoEllen Heukrath, a supporter of the proposed project, says she would like to see the site come to the fort.

"I Think that Fort Drum has been a good influence on the area," Heukrath said. "I support the troops, I support anyone that serves in Fort Drum, and I think it's been a positive influence on the North Country."

Credit Gino Geruntino / WRVO
The red sections on the map show the options highlighted for a possible missile defense site at Fort Drum. The yellow sections are where possible expansions could take place.

She says she used Tuesday's open-house style event to clear up some lingering concerns that she had regarding the project.

"I got some questions answered about if they took into consideration how long our winters are, as far as construction," Heukrath said. "It's two years down the road until they make a decision, and then another three years before construction. Again, that's all good for Fort Drum."

James Uhlinger also came out to show his support. As a small business owner, he says it's important that the upstate economy continue to grow.

"Jobs are the number one driver, especially in an economy like upstate New York," Uhlinger said. "A lot of what happens here, it isn't all directly as a result of Fort Drum, but it is basically a piggyback on Fort Drum, and the multipliers are large."

He says he likes the proposed plan, but says he's heard certain questions come up about the site and the missiles themselves.

"The main thing I've heard a few people talking about was they were concerned whether or not these are nuclear missiles," Uhlinger said. "And they're not, they're impact missiles. There's no explosive charge, no nuclear material in them at all. To me, that was kind of, of the people I talked to, that was the overriding concern, and I'm glad to hear that that's not so."

Credit Gino Geruntino / WRVO
Members of the Missile Defense Agency discuss Fort Drum with North Country residents.

Officials with the agency say they've seen mostly supportive comments from North Country residents. They say reaction has been more mixed in the other locations being considered for a possible missile site, including the SERE East in Maine, Camp Revenna Joint Military Training Center in Ohio, and Fort Custer Training Center in Michigan.

The proposed site would have 20 ground-based interceptor missiles and silos, with the option to expand out to 60. It would also join two other long-range interceptor sites already active in California and Alaska. This would be the only active site on the East Coast.

But Lt. Col. Snipes says establishing a site on the East Coast isn't officially a done deal, and may not even be deemed necessary.

"With any type of department acquisition or any type of study, there's always a no action alternative," Snipes said. "And so there is no preferred alternative. All four sites are equal right now and that's where we stand."

Public comments regarding the possible missile site can be submitted until September 15. The entire study is expected to take about two years to complete.