Buxton Beach Access

Map of the Outer Banks with an inset map showing the Buxton Beach Access closure.
Map of the Outer Banks with inset map showing the Buxton Beach Access closure.

FAQs for Buxton Beach Access Closure

Where is the Buxton Beach Access?
Cape Hatteras National Seashore’s Buxton Beach Access is located at the south end of Old Lighthouse Road in Buxton, North Carolina.

Why is the Buxton Beach Access closed?
Due to decades-long military usage and yet to be performed restoration of the area, samples taken from the beach adjacent to the Buxton Beach Access tested positive in early September 2023, for petroleum-contaminated soils (PCS). Additionally, due to coastal erosion, abandoned facilities, construction debris, and septic systems associated with historic use of the area have been observed along the beach and pose hazards to visitors.

What is the size of the Buxton Beach Access closure?
The current length of the Buxton Beach Access closure is about three-tenths of a mile. For size perspective, Cape Hatteras National Seashore includes 75 miles of ocean-facing beaches. Additionally, beaches towns such as Nags Head and Duck are 54 miles and 70 miles north of the Buxton Beach Access, respectively. To the south, Frisco is 10 miles and Hatteras 15 miles from the Buxton Beach Access.

What federal agencies are working together to try to find a solution to the contaminated beach and remnant military infrastructure issues at the Buxton Beach Access?
The National Park Service, which owns the land, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Coast Guard are working to determine an authorized program to remediate PCS and removed exposed infrastructure at Buxton Beach Access.

Why is the military involved with the Buxton Beach Access?
From 1956 until 2010, the Buxton Beach Access served our nation as a military base for both the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard.

If the area used to host a Navy facility, why isn’t the Navy involved with remediating the PCS and remnant infrastructure?
The former Navy facility property was found to be an Army Corps of Engineers Formerly Used Defense Site (FUDS) property and eligible under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program (10.U.S.C. § 2701) in a Finding and Determination of Eligibility signed April 25, 1991.

The Army Corps of Engineers provides the following description of FUDS on its website:
The Department of Defense is responsible for environmental restoration of properties that were formerly owned by, leased to, or otherwise possessed by the United States and under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Defense prior to October 1986. Such properties are known as Formerly Used Defense Sites or FUDS. The U.S. Army is the executive agent for the program and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages and directs the program’s administration. DoD, the Army and the Corps of Engineers are dedicated to protecting human health and the environment by investigating and remediating potential contamination that may remain on these properties.”

Since the Navy used the Buxton Beach Access prior to October 1986, it was approved as a FUDS property.

Does the Buxton Beach Access closure mean I can’t enjoy the beach in front of my beach house?
From Corolla to Ocracoke, there are well over 100 miles of ocean-facing beaches and recreational activities to enjoy. The beach closure adjacent to the Buxton Beach Access encompasses only three-tenths of a mile and there are no houses behind the closed beach area.

Is it safe to swim or surf fish in the ocean near the Buxton Beach Access?Until the PCS are mitigated, and the three-tenths of a mile area is declared safe, environmental and public health officials recommend:

  • Avoid swimming, wading, or fishing in front of Buxton Beach Access. Reports of varying mild to moderate symptoms including headache, nausea, and skin irritation have been shared by individuals after participation in recreational water activities in the impacted area.

  • If skin comes in contact with contaminated sediment or water, thoroughly wash the affected area with soap and water.

If I’m visiting near the Buxton Beach Access and smell fuel odors or see a sheen on the ocean water, where do I report my observations?
If you observe a fuel smell or sheens on the ocean water, avoid the area and call the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802.

When is the Buxton Beach Access expected to reopen?
The National Park Service intends to keep the Buxton Beach Access closed until the contaminated beach in this area is remediated and the remnant infrastructure is removed. There is currently no timeline for reopening any of the three-tenths of a mile beach and parking area.

 
 
Black and white image showing construction of various naval buildings.
NAVFAC Cape Hatteras and its terminal building during early construction. This photo was taken from atop the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.

Navy Operations (1956-1982)

In 1956, three years after its establishment, Cape Hatteras National Seashore (Seashore) issued a special use permit to the Navy for construction and operation of Naval Facility (NAVFAC) Cape Hatteras, on approximately 50 acres just north of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Condition 11 of the permit stated: “The permittee shall remove all structures, foundations, and pavements, and clean up and restore the site prior to or immediately following termination of use.”

On January 11, 1956, NAVFAC Cape Hatteras, which operated as an undersea surveillance station, was commissioned by the Navy, and it is reported that the listening cables that extended from the facility’s terminal building to dozens of miles out to sea, made the first underwater detection of a Soviet diesel submarine in 1962.

The Navy concluded operations at NAVFAC Cape Hatteras in June 1982; however, all buildings and infrastructure remained at the site.

 
Black and white aerial view of Coast Guard Station and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
Aerial photo of Coast Guard Group Cape Hatteras in 1984, two years after the Navy ceased operations at the site.

Coast Guard Operations (1984-2010)

In 1984, the Coast Guard began using the Buxton Beach Access as Coast Guard Group Cape Hatteras under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Seashore. The MOU was issued conditional upon removing all improvements and restoring the site to park land upon ceasing operations.

Excluded from the MOU were structures that the Coast Guard didn’t plan on using such as the Navy’s terminal equipment building and the enlisted club building, located near the dunes. The structures not included in the MOU between the Coast Guard and NPS were contracted by the Army Corps of Engineers to be removed under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program (DERP), which is a congressionally directed program for environmental restoration of active installations and formerly used Department of Defense properties. Based on current observations, the project to remove all foundations and utility lines in this area was not fully completed.

In 2001, the MOU between the Seashore and the Coast Guard was replaced by a General Agreement (GA). The GA obligated the Coast Guard to remove the existing structures including 16 buildings, a tennis court, softball field, swimming pool, sewage treatment plant, two steam boilers, two diesel generators, and a TV tower, and restore the landscape. The GA also required the Coast Guard, prior to vacating the land, to “conduct a hazardous materials site survey and be responsible for any associated cleanup or mitigation costs and actions.”

In 2005, the Coast Guard announced its intentions to decommission the base after damage to the facilities from storms. The Coast Guard placed both the base facilities and the housing tracts with the General Services Administration (GSA) for disposition, which was completed in 2012.

In 2008, the Coast Guard’s Cleveland Engineering Unit (CEU) completed a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment; however, the Seashore determined that the report did not thoroughly address all the environmental issues at the site and hired an independent contractor to assist in reviewing the report and recommendations.

In 2010, the Coast Guard completed a Supplemental Soil Assessment Report for the wastewater facilities on the site which identified semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOC), metals, pesticides, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) compounds were present in soil at concentrations above EPA standards. This report identified potential impacts beneath the wastewater facilities but did not delineate the extent of any potential contaminants.

In 2012, the demolition of some of the wastewater facilities was completed, but did not include removal and/or remediation of the two drain fields which were to be removed and remediated through the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation, and Liabilities Act (CERCLA) process.

On October 30, 2013, the GA between Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the Coast Guard expired.

 

Army Corps of Engineers (1998-Present Day)

The former Navy facility property was found to be an Army Corps of Engineers Formerly Used Defense Site (FUDS) property and eligible under the Defense Environmental Restoration Program (10.U.S.C. § 2701) in a Finding and Determination of Eligibility signed April 25, 1991. The Corps later began acting in response to petroleum contamination in several areas.

The Corps provides the following description of FUDS on its website:

The Department of Defense is responsible for environmental restoration of properties that were formerly owned by, leased to, or otherwise possessed by the United States and under the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Defense prior to October 1986. Such properties are known as Formerly Used Defense Sites or FUDS. The U.S. Army is the executive agent for the program and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers manages and directs the program’s administration. DoD, the Army and the Corps of Engineers are dedicated to protecting human health and the environment by investigating and remediating potential contamination that may remain on these properties.

Congress created the FUDS Program in the mid-1980s. The Corps of Engineers executes the program pursuant to the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation, and Liabilities Act. The type of remediation required under the FUDS Program varies from property to property, and can include cleaning up hazardous, toxic and radioactive waste sites; removing munitions and explosives of concern and munitions constituents; and doing building demolition and debris removal.

In 1999, the Corps began soil and groundwater investigations and performed work under the FUDS program seemingly targeted towards petroleum contamination associated with known storage areas and spills.

In 2004, over 4,000 tons of PCS were excavated and removed from the site, but groundwater monitoring and bioremediation continued due to detections of petroleum hydrocarbon contamination that exceeded N.C. Department of Environmental Quality standards. Additionally, previously unknown petroleum contamination and pipeline were found as part of the soil removal project. Corps reports indicate that not all PCS were removed due to underground utilities and infrastructure obstructions.

Specific areas of the Buxton Beach Access are monitored annually for contaminated groundwater under the FUDS program.

 
Exposed wires and cable associated with a cable terminal vault.
Photo of infrastructure that became exposed after storm-related erosion in September 2023.

Public Use at Buxton Beach Access (2019-Present Day)

The Buxton Beach Access offers a 50-car parking area, portable restrooms, and an accessible pathway to the beach. The beach in this area has consistently ranked as one of the best beaches in America.

On September 1, 2023, as a precautionary measure, the beach adjacent to the former military site was closed after experiencing beach erosion from Tropical Storm Idalia and Hurricane Lee. The erosion uncovered potentially hazardous infrastructure associated with the Navy and Coast Guard bases and visitors reported a strong smell of petroleum. The Seashore filed two reports with the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Spill Response Center.

Sediment samples taken in early September 2023, by the Coast Guard’s Spill Response staff came back positive for petroleum hydrocarbons with characteristics of light fuel oil, and lubricating oil. Since early September 2023, PCS have intermittently been observed on the beach.

On September 25, 2023, the Dare County Department of Health and Human Services, the Seashore, and the Corps, issued a precautionary public health advisory.

On February 9, 2024, Seashore staff noticed a very strong smell of petroleum products and multiple surfers reported that their wetsuits and hair smelled like fuel and noticed a sheen on the water near Buxton Beach Access. A number of reports were submitted to the National Response Center.

On March 25, 2024, the Dare County Department of Health and Human Services and the Seashore issued an updated precautionary public health advisory.

 
Exposed infrastructure on Buxton beach, February 14, 2024.
Photo taken February 15, 2024, showing exposed former military infrastructure at the Buxton Beach Access. The infrastructure appears to be the foundation of the Navy’s former terminal building and cable terminal vaults.

What's next?

  • The three-tenths of a mile long stretch of beach remains closed as a precautionary measure.

  • The Seashore will continue to communicate observations and concerns about the existence of PCS and debris to the Corps and Coast Guard.

  • According to a March 28, 2024, Corps news release, a Corps summary report recommends "developing a predictive model, in as much as one can be developed," that would allow the Corps to be proactive and have a team in place to verify the conditions and "try to find the source."

  • The Coast Guard is conducting a CERCLA investigation at the site to evaluate the presence of non-petroleum contaminants, which is underway and expected to conclude during the summer of 2024. The contract for the investigation is not related to the PCS observations in September 2023.

Historical photos of NAVFAC Cape Hatteras and Coast Guard Group Cape Hatteras, and recent photos of exposed infrastructure, can be found at the Seashore’s Flickr page at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/capehatterasnps/albums/72177720315007485.

 
Black and white aerial photo showing white sandbags and construction equipment on the beach.
Photo showing sandbags and equipment associated with the construction of a jetty directly in front of the naval facility’s enlisted club. The terminal building is located just to the north of the enlisted club in this photo.

Additional Navy SOSUS and NAVFAC Cape Hatteras History

In the 1960s, the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) played a crucial role in the U.S. Navy's efforts to track and monitor Soviet submarine activity during the Cold War. The system, which received the unclassified name Project Caesar, consisted of a network of underwater listening stations strategically positioned to detect and track the movements of Soviet submarines.

Commissioned on January 11, 1956, NAVFAC Cape Hatteras was one of the nine initial underwater listening stations. The terminal building was the most important building at each SOSUS naval facility as it housed the terminal equipment used to process and analyze data collected by dozens of hydrophones placed in the ocean near the end of an approximately 100-mile cable originating from the terminal building.

On June 26, 1962, Navy personnel inside the NAVFAC Cape Hatteras terminal building made the first SOSUS detection of a Soviet diesel submarine.

The terminal building was typically located on a high dune, well behind the beach, to ensure optimal performance and protection from natural disasters. The protected locations of the terminal buildings did not withstand the test of time as multiple naval facilities suffered impacts from the “Ash Wednesday Storm” of 1962, and various other storms.

Coastal erosion also hampered operations at naval facilities, particularly at NAVFAC Cape Hatteras. In the late 1960s, sandbags were placed in front of the site prior to the installation of jetties.

 
Photo showing exposed infrastructure on the beach.
Photo taken Sept. 28, 2023, possibly showing a portion of the terminal building’s foundation and the terminal cable vaults. In this photo, the undersea cable can be seen coming out of what appears to be the southern terminal vault.

Today, it appears that the foundation of the terminal building, including two cable terminal vaults and other infrastructure associated with NAVFAC Cape Hatteras, litter the beach, due to significant coastal erosion over the years.

While the National Park Service remains concerned about the remnant infrastructure and PCS at this site, it is also proud that for 26 years, America’s first national seashore hosted NAVFAC Cape Hatteras, a military facility that played an essential role in tracking Soviet submarine movements and provided valuable intelligence to the U.S. Navy.

The Seashore continues to support the military by providing land to the Coast Guard for important operations out of Hatteras Inlet and Oregon Inlet.

http://go.nps.gov/buxtonbeach

 

Available Documents

The Seashore has made the following documents available for public review:

  • Special Use Permit between NPS and Navy, signed February 9, 1956
  • Use Agreement between Navy and Coast Guard, dated June 29, 1982
  • Memorandum of Understanding between NPS and Coast Guard, dated March 13, 1984
  • Army Corps of Engineers EA and FONSI for Defense Environmental Restoration Program, dated July 12, 1985
  • Army Corps of Engineers statement of work for demo and removal of buildings, utilities, etc.
  • Army Corps letter to NPS stating demo work and site restoration completed, dated February 21, 1986
  • Reaffirmation Memorandum (5-year extension) between NPS and Coast Guard, dated August 1994
  • General Agreement between NPS and Coast Guard, dated October 30, 2001
  • General Agreement between NPS and Coast Guard, dated August 4, 2006
  • General Agreement between NPS and Coast Guard, dated October 24, 2012
  • Superintendent Hallac's Buxton Beach Access public meeting presentation, April 10, 2024
To request a copy of any of these documents, please email caha_public_affairs@nps.gov.

Last updated: April 11, 2024

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1401 National Park Drive

Manteo, NC 27954

Phone:

252 473-2111

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