WASHINGTON- Lawmakers and government officials broke ground Tuesday on a $586 million Food and Drug Administration complex that could ultimately bring more than 6,200 government workers to the site of a former military base in Montgomery County.
The five-phase project, currently scheduled for completion in 2007, would take FDA operations that are now scattered among 48 leased buildings in the region, and consolidate them at the former Naval Surface Warfare Center in White Oak.
The complex would use about 130 acres of the 660-acre site for the FDA commissioner’s office, the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, the Center for Devices and Radiological Health, the Center for Biological Evaluation and Research, and the Office of Regulatory Affairs.
Congress has approved $35 million for Phase I, which calls for the construction of 114,000 square feet of laboratory and office space for the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research by 2002. Subsequent phases are in the design stages, but have not yet been funded.
“It’s a great development for the people of the region and the FDA,” said state Sen. Ida G. Ruben, D-Montgomery. She said it will bring together divisions of “an agency that is of vital importance to the people of the country,” while saving taxpayers money through the consolidation.
Supporters of the project downplayed concerns raised by some government employees unions that the move would be burdensome to workers and possibly expose them to pollution left behind by the Navy’s 57-year use of the site. They said a massive cleanup has already made 75 percent of the proposed FDA site fit for occupation and that rest will be cleaned up soon.
“As in all military bases there has been some pollution in the ground,” said Betsy Bretz, chairman of Labquest Community Partnership, the community group that has been a strong advocate for the plan. “But the naval department dealing with this has been committed to clean up the site and has done a tremendous job. By and large, they have cleaned up everything.”
William Potterton, project director with the General Services Administration, said the Navy has certified the site “clean and ready to go. There is absolutely no threat to anyone’s health.”
Authorities also said the state is committed to providing adequate transportation to FDA workers and will work on easing the traffic congestion that may occur as a result of the project.
“The state will be providing adequate transportation for the people to get to the site,” said Bretz. “It means a lot to the community. Having the federal agency that has such a great impact on our lives in our midst is indeed a great thing for all of us. We are very fortunate.”
From 1940 until 1997, the White Oak site was the home of the Naval Surface Warfare Center, which performed extensive military design and testing work. But the White Oak facility was ordered closed in 1995 in a round of military base closings and realignments, and the only military installation still in operation there is a wind tunnel operated by the Air Force.