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Suffolk Closeup: Former missile base may be designated a Superfund site

A former U.S. Air Force missile base in Westhampton — created to use nuclear-tipped missiles to shoot down Soviet bombers feared to be flying over or near Long Island to bomb New York City and other targets — may be designated a high-pollution state “Superfund” site.

Suffolk Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken last month said his agency “was informed … by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation that the former BOMARC Missile Base (Boeing Michigan Aeronautical Research Center) is being considered as a potentially inactive hazardous waste disposal site.” It “will be listed” as a state “Superfund site” — a designation which includes a provision for clean-up “if it is determined that hazardous waste disposed on the property poses a significant threat to public health or the environment.”

“The BOMARC site,” declared the statement, “which comprises approximately 186 acres, is being investigated as the result of the detection” of several now banned or phased-out chemicals “in samples from both private wells and on-site groundwater monitoring wells.” 

If there is chemical contamination at the site, it would be far better than what would have happened if the nuclear-tipped missiles had actually been launched from the BOMARC base and exploded — this was the plan — very close by.

In the 1950s, the U.S. feared Soviet bombers might strike major U.S. cities and other targets. The U.S. hatched a scheme to use nuclear-tipped antiaircraft missiles to fire at the Soviet bombers, but these were early antiaircraft missiles unable to score direct hits. So, the plan was to have the nuclear warheads on the BOMARC and also Army nuclear-tipped Nike Hercules missiles detonate when the missiles reached a formation of Soviet bombers, blowing the formation apart, although also raining radioactivity down below.

In Suffolk, along with the Air Force BOMARC base in Westhampton, there was an Army nuclear-tipped missile base in Rocky Point at which Nikes Hercules missiles were deployed.

Other BOMARC and Nike Hercules bases were set up all over the U.S.

The nuclear warheads on the BOMARC and Nike Hercules missiles had massive power. The nuclear warheads on the BOMARCs had the equivalent of 10 kilotons of TNT. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima had the power of 13 kilotons. The Nike Hercules warheads ranged up to 30 kilotons. 

How much radioactive fall-out would have descended on the areas where BOMARC and Nike Hercules bases were located depended on the winds and where the detonations of their nuclear warheads happened. The detonations would have occurred not far away, since the BOMARC had a range of 250 miles, the Nike Hercules only 100 miles.

At the BOMARC base on Old Country Road in Westhampton there were 56 missiles, each in its own building. The roofs of the buildings would open and the missiles launched. The base was operational “from 1959 until it was decommissioned in 1964,” noted the health department statement, and the site and its buildings “turned over to Suffolk County.” On it today are a “law enforcement shooting range” and “a vehicle training course for emergency responders.” And some of the missile buildings are used by Suffolk government for storage of records.

The former three-missile Nike Hercules base in Rocky Point is on Route 25A just east of William Floyd Parkway. It’s now the site of an Army Reserve Center, but the remnants of the missile base remain in the form of a variety of structures and missile silos. The Nike Hercules missiles were positioned underground in the silos. It was operational from 1957 to 1974.

The nuclear-tipped missiles are gone at the sites.

I wrote and presented a television program in 2010 for WVVH-TV on the two missile bases in Suffolk. I titled it: “Avoiding Nuclear Destruction: By The Skin Of Our Teeth.” You can see the program on YouTube atcom/watch?v=TLb_8FuH-8M.

I did my “stand-up” in the TV program on top of one of the missile silos in Rocky Point. The Army OK’d my exploring and filming at the site. In Westhampton, I was accompanied by the Suffolk public works commissioner. The experience at both was eerie and chilling. 

Last week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its “Doomsday Clock” from “two minutes to 100 seconds to midnight.” Said the Bulletin: “The iconic Doomsday Clock symbolizing the gravest perils facing humankind is now closer to midnight than at any point since its creation in 1947 … Humanity continues to face two simultaneous dangers — nuclear war and climate change.”

Will apocalyptic destruction again be barely avoided. Or will it not?