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Solar Farm Might Launch at Alburgh Missile Site

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FROM A HISTORY OF THE 556TH STRATEGIC MISSILE SQUADRON
  • from a history of the 556th strategic missile Squadron

Small towns across Vermont are accustomed to looking after parks, libraries, old meeting halls and fire stations. But at the northwestern tip of the state, officials in Alburgh have been struggling to find a use for a peculiar piece of infrastructure.

For decades, the town has owned an underground missile silo that is 17 stories deep. At the height of the Cold War, it hosted an 81-foot intercontinental ballistic missile aimed at the Soviet Union and a five-man crew that was ready and willing to launch it.

Town officials had planned in recent months to put the nine-acre silo site on the auction block and to open the bidding at $50,000. They worried, though, there might be a shortage of buyers for an obsolete military relic.

But it now appears the former hot spot could find a new life as a home for renewable energy: A Jericho businessman has submitted a proposal to turn it into a solar farm.

"It's not a done deal yet, but it sounds promising, that's for sure," selectboard chair Steve Aubin said.

Nestled on a spit of land between Lake Champlain and the Canadian border, the silo site doesn't look like much. A single chain, two feet off the ground, spans the entrance that is no longer guarded. Beyond it, on a weedy lot, two hulking metal Quonset huts stand sentry over concrete floors littered with metal sheets and tubes. The name of the half-mile-long strip of pavement that leads to the site — Missile Base Road — hints at the ominous history buried underground. A historical marker at the adjacent Alburgh Welcome Center spells it out: "First Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Site East of the Mississippi River."

Most of America's missile bases have been located in rural swaths of the West and Midwest. But in the early 1960s, as the perceived Soviet threat reached its peak, the Department of Defense decided to install 12 Atlas missiles at sites around the former Plattsburgh Air Force base, then one of the largest military facilities on the East Coast. From there, the 135-ton missiles wouldn't have far to go via the Arctic Circle to deliver nuclear warheads to the Soviet Union.

Ten of the silos were built in upstate New York. Vermont got two — in Alburgh and Swanton, where local farmers sold some of their land to the military. The silo designs were all identical.

Constructing the underground structures was dangerous work. According to the Plattsburgh Press Republican, a falling bucket plunged through the Alburgh silo and killed a 28-year-old worker from Gouverneur, N.Y. At least three other men died while working in the 12 silos.

Old-timers in Alburgh remember the day in 1962 when an Atlas missile rolled into town on a huge flatbed truck, as dozens of people lined the streets. Some utility poles along Route 2 had to be temporarily removed to make way.

Some locals worried that hosting the silo would cause the Soviets to target the area with their own missiles, according to media reports at the time. But most welcomed the influx of jobs and money that came with the project.

"It's difficult to go back to that day and time," said Jeff Stephens, an amateur historian who coauthored a book about the 12 silos: A History of the 556th Strategic Missile Squadron. "This was the day the Reds were out to get us. Either you're an American or commie. There was a lot of paranoia and fear. It was a frenzy. 'Oh, my gosh, we've got to do something. We have to make sure we are protected and can retaliate.'"

Once the silos were constructed, their crews worked in an underground launch-control center. They accessed it via a spiral staircase from an above-ground entrance protected by huge blast doors. A tunnel attached the control center to the much deeper silo.

Though each silo cost as much as $18 million to build, their lifespans were short — and today they would probably be held up as a classic example of military waste. By 1967, rocket scientists had come up with a larger, more sophisticated missile, the Titan, that wouldn't fit in the 12 silos. The outdated missiles were taken away, and the local sites, once the focus of so much intrigue, fell dormant overnight. When their sump pumps turned off, water flooded the empty silos and command centers.

In Alburgh, the military welded shut the nine-ton silo doors, removed equipment from the Quonset huts, and gave the site to the town. Local officials eventually decided it would make a fine home for the Alburgh Highway Department.

Most of the other sites met similarly ignominious fates.

In Swanton, Chevalier Drilling Co. bought the Atlas site, stripped most of the metal and other materials from the silo, and sold the remnants of the $14 million facility for scrap.

Other sites have remained untouched, though a few private owners have been more ambitious. In Champlain, Redford and Lewis, N.Y., owners have transformed the silos into livable homes. In Willsboro, N.Y., an artist bought a site and lives in one of the Quonset huts but has not attempted to restore the underground facilities.

The silos fascinate a small but passionate group of buffs, including Stephens, who says they shed important light on the era. "When you look at history, there's a romantic undertone," Stephens said. "Everyone goes, 'Wasn't that the perfect time?' The answer is, 'No.' These were mechanical beasts, and they were here to do a job."

The beasts have a certain allure, though. In Alburgh, volunteer firefighter and certified scuba diver Bill Gett admitted he has schemed for years about how to bust into the silo and dive to its murky bottom.

Gett, who runs an auto repair shop, said that he has studied designs and walked the site, and though the main entrance is sealed shut, he believes he has found a way inside.

He asked a former Alburgh selectman, a friend, for permission. "Don't you even think about it," the man said, Getts recalled. "You dive that, I kick your ass."

A few years ago, Gett got a phone call from Gerald Fitzpatrick, who had just bought the silo in Champlain, N.Y., and wanted someone to explore it before he started pumping the water out.

Gett rushed over that day — and dove in. He made it a little more than halfway to the bottom before turning back. He described the 52-foot diameter hole as "dark and eerie."

"Visibility was an inch if you were lucky," Gett said. "Even with dive lights, it didn't matter, it was too thick."

Officials in tiny Alburgh, with an annual budget of $570,000, have long talked about selling the silo to raise money and get the property back on the tax rolls. The town is struggling economically: Two gas stations and a bank closed in recent years, and a general store is the only downtown commercial enterprise.

A few years ago, the highway department moved to a new facility across town.

Last summer, as the selectboard prepared to go to auction, Will Veve came calling about the solar project. He said he had been quietly scouring Vermont for properties that developers usually shun — brownfields. Veve figured it would be easier to get community support for a project that sits on land that would otherwise be difficult to develop.

The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources lists the Alburgh silo site as a brownfield, as a result of minor contamination of some grass and groundwater around it. ANR investigators ascribed no blame for the contamination but noted that former workers regularly dumped solvents on the ground around the silo.

Working with his brother, Victor, Veve has proposed building a 500-kilowatt solar field, with about 2,000 solar panels — enough to power roughly 100 homes. As part of the deal, Alburgh would receive a monthly lease payment and cheap electricity for town-owned buildings.

"We like to look and say, 'What's the maximum public good?'" Veve said.

Veve, a 38-year-old University of Vermont graduate, acknowledged that he has no experience in solar projects. His current venture — which he declined to discuss in any detail — is a video-production company called Verde Media Group.

In recent years, Verde Media Group announced a new reality show, "Green Rusher," which proposed to follow people involved in the legal marijuana business. It has not been made — the website has been taken down, and its social media pages haven't generated any activity since February — but Verde said it's "in pre-production." Verde Media's quarterly report suggests it owns a subsidiary, Beautyject Inc., which is "the first company to offer needle-free technology adapted to the beauty care and cosmetic markets."

According to Verde Media Group's most recent corporate filing, it has $49,000 in assets and $1.6 million in liabilities and lost $69,000 in the most recent fiscal quarter. Veve is listed as the company's largest shareholder.

Now launching a solar business, he has hired consultants and is talking about the permit process with ANR. The agency verified Veve's exploratory work and was scheduled to send officials to inspect the missile site this week.

Veve said he hopes Alburgh will qualify as one of ANR's net-metered projects, which allow small renewable-energy operations to sell power back to the main electric grid.

Sporting a trimmed beard and stylish eyeglasses, Veve has appeared at a few selectboard meetings, and its members have been supportive. "So far this is only the real offer that came along," Aubin conceded.

Last week, the selectboard unanimously voted to authorize the town attorney to start formal negotiations with Veve, who hopes to construct the facility in 2016.

While Veve said his proposed solar array would fit comfortably on the site's nine acres, he has no plans to do anything with the underground facilities. He has little interest in their history.

That has given some silo aficionados hope that it might be pumped out and opened up.

Gett promised he'd be first in line.

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