Nov. 26--An unassuming Lincoln hillside hides a Cold War relic and a toxic whodunit?
Hidden by 125-ton doors and now filled with water, the underground former Titan 1 missile base near Lincoln is a totem of the nuclear arms race.
For a little more than two years, from 1962 to 1965, the complex of three Titan missile silos hidden beneath tons of concrete acted as a nuclear deterrent as the U.S.-Soviet arms war raced along.
Placer County acquired the property along Oak Tree Lane in 1968 and has used it as part of a vehicle maintenance yard.
On a recent morning, two county employees toured the grounds, climbing atop the massive doors, oohing, aahing and wondering.
"That is what blows me away, it was only operational for a few years," said Mike Fitch, a county spokesman, as he looked around the site.
While the complex is sealed up tight, contamination of nearby groundwater is the cause of an ongoing dispute.
California Regional Water Quality Control Board officials believe that when the base was under military control it was the cause of an underground plume of trichloroethene (TCE), a degreasing solvent.
But the Army Corps of Engineers says the county is responsible. The Army Corps believes that the county vehicle maintenance yard, which is still in use, is the cause of the contamination.
In 2009, state water experts studied the problem and proposed a solution.
But the conversation ended over who would pay for remediation.
"It's our position that the TCE is likely to have come from the use of the facility as a missile base," said Duncan Austin, a supervising water resources control engineer. He said TCE is more associated with missile bases than vehicle repair shops.
He said he had suggested some sharing of the cleanup expenses.
But Army Corps officials say they did their own testing in 2007.
"The data indicated there was a potential non-(Department of Defense) source for the contamination," said Carlos Lazo, a spokesman for the Corps. "We can't spend government funds to remediate that."
Mark Rideout, Placer County's deputy director of facilities, said the Corps is off-base.
"We disagree with that contention. We don't use TCE now, and we have no records of ever using it," he said.
He said the facility is used as a road repair staging ground and for light vehicle repair.
Austin said the contamination isn't an active threat to human life or animal species, as long as no one attempts to extract the water.
The issue has drifted to the background since Lincoln's real estate market dried up, Austin said. But he added that the water control board could issue an order, making the dispute a legal matter.
Aside from the toxic issues, the base has stayed largely outside the public consciousness.
The site went online in September 1962, but by January 1965 the U.S. missile program had moved on. The $44.4 million complex -- $337 million in today's dollars -- was no longer needed and was gutted.
Hulking concrete platforms above the 160-foot-deep silos are the most visible signs of the mothballed base. The complex was an underground mini-city with its own power and water supplies in addition to the control room, satellite system, silos and fuel storage area.
Even as the Titan 1 bases were being built, the military already had its eye on the next missile platform, said Chuck Penson, historian at the Titan Missile Museum in Green Valley, Ariz. The museum is housed in a former Titan 2 site.
"Titan was developed as an insurance policy while they were building the Atlas (missile program)," Penson said.
Berry Bauer, curator at the Aerospace Museum in North Highlands, said local communities were supportive of having the missile bases. In addition to the site near Lincoln, Beale Air Force Base controlled operations in the Live Oak and Chico areas.
The Atlas missile, too, was quickly phased out in favor of the Titan 2.
The problem was that the Titan 1 and Atlas missiles used liquid oxygen in the fuel system, which could not be stored inside the rocket. To fire, the Titan missile had to be raised to the top of the platform and then fueled, a process that took 15 minutes. The Atlas had to be stood upright and took even longer to launch.
The Titan 2 missiles could be fired from their underground chambers in a minute -- a huge improvement, Penson said.
But the military decided not to attempt to retrofit the old bases, Penson said.
The new missile bases moved the weapons farther from the coast and spread silos eight miles apart to make them harder targets for the Russians to hit.
"They were just too big and too much of everything," Penson said of the Titan 1 sites. "It's like a subway station in Times Square."
Call The Bee'sEd Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @SB_Ed_Fletcher.
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