CARIBOU, Maine — A final decision is likely years away, but on Wednesday, a top ranking military official confirmed two northern Maine sites remain in the running for an east coast interceptor missile facility.

“Yes, we are looking at the two sites in Maine in conjunction with other sites as well,” Vice Admiral James D. Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said on a video recording of Wednesday’s senate appropriations defense subcommittee hearing in Washington.

Syring was responding to a direct question from Sen. Susan Collins, a member of the subcommittee, about f the agency was still considering the sites in Caribou and Limestone identified as possible sites in a report released last year by the National Academy’s Research Council.

“A 2012 report by the research council concluded there were gaps in our nation’s ballistic missile defense system particularly when it comes to protecting the East coast,” Collins, a native of Caribou, said on the video of the hearing. “Alaska is going to be fine, but [in] Maine there is a real gap.”

A wide range of possible sites for the ground-based missile facilities are under consideration around the country, according to Richard Lehner, spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency.

“The siting study is looking at hundreds of sites at this point,” Lehner said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon, adding that by the end of the summer those sites should be narrowed down to the top two or three contenders.

“We are in the process of screening all the sites we have looked at,” Syring said during the hearing. “There is a whole series of criteria that I have used, [and] it is a very serious effort backed up with thousands of pages of documentation and analysis.”

Among the things taken into account are location, safety and infrastructure.

In addition to those factors, Collins urged Syring to consider “local acceptance” when making his final selections.

“I know in my state of Maine it is a very welcoming place for military installations of this sort,” she said. “I think that is a very important part of this process [and] locating the site in spot where it would not be welcomed by the local population would not be wise.”

Among those supporting the location is Caribou’s city council which sent a letter of support to the Maine legislative delegation and department of defence last spring.

“This would mean a lot of new jobs for the area and would have a large economic impact,” Austin Bleess, Caribou city manager, said Wednesday.

According to a working document prepared by the Missile Defense Agency, and received via email from Collins’ office on Wednesday, an East Coast missile facility would consist of 20 missile silos and require approximately 300 people to operate and maintain it, split between 160 civilian and 140 military personnel.

“We have a strong history of working with the military and supporting military families,” Bleess said, noting the proximity of the former Loring Air Force Base in nearby Limestone. We take pride in our military heritage.”

Syring told Collins that consideration of local support is taken into account in the decision making process.

The National Research Council’s 2012 260-page report concluded there are troubling and potentially disastrous holes in the country’s missile defense system, including the northeastern part of the country.

In it, Fort Drum and Rome, N.Y. and Caribou were identified as ideal sites for facilities designed to intercept long-range missiles from hostile countries such as North Korea or Iran as they approach targets in the United States.

Ground based interceptor missiles used by the National Missile Defense system intercept incoming ballistic warheads outside the earth’s atmosphere, destroying them by force of impact.

There are currently two interceptor bases in the country, one in Fort Greely, Alaska, and one at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Once the final two or three sites are identified, Lehner said, they will be presented to Congress which will then decide whether or not to fund an environmental impact study for the sites.

That process, Lehner said, may not even start for another 18 to 20 months.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.