Banking on Tainted Ground 

The Navy balks at cleaning up its old Alameda base, but if it accepts the city's latest plan, houses may bloom there yet.

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Wartime pressure and a lack of environmental oversight resulted in careless handling of toxic materials. Massive quantities of contaminants were often dumped into leaky storm drains. Gallons of toxins befouled the ground in accidental spills. Noxious materials of all sorts leached into soil and groundwater from unregulated dumpsites.

The environmental legacy includes asbestos, lead, radioactive materials, and unexploded ordnance. But according to a 2001 environmental impact report, the greatest potential for adverse health effects is from petroleum-based contaminants such as benzene and an assortment of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. At one point, there were more than a hundred underground fuel storage tanks scattered around the base and another 24 above ground. In addition, there were thirteen miles of leaky fuel lines crisscrossing the base. Petroleum-based contaminants can be found all over the base in soil, deep in the marsh crust, and in groundwater. "There was more oil spilled in Alameda Point than the Valdez dumped in Prince William Sound," said one city official, who asked not to be named.

City officials originally lobbied to restore the base to its prewar condition. But over the years, the economic pressure to develop the land and a realization that the Navy may not be capable of a more extensive cleanup has softened their position.

The Navy has spent $200 million on cleanup to date. Other government agencies and environmental groups estimate that the cost to thoroughly clean the rest of the base exceeds $500 million. But the Navy wants to spend only $128 million more, to clean up surface soils in proposed residential areas and allow contaminated subsurface soils and groundwater to attenuate naturally. Other serious health threats in nonresidential areas would be paved over, fenced off, or otherwise restricted under a policy known as "institutional control."

"The problem with relying on institutional controls is that thorough cleanup is substituted with what are essentially unproven strategies to protect human health," said Arc Ecology executive director Saul Bloom. "We are still unsure what the health outcomes will be. And if they move forward with development at Alameda Point without a thorough cleanup, it might come back to bite them in the ass."

Perez has greatly lowered his original expectations for a toxic-free base. "Our ideal would be to have all the toxicity on the base removed," he said. "But as soon as we began to rub our noses in this project, we discovered that our ideal -- which would be to have anyplace on the base safe for schools and playgrounds -- and reality are much different."

As it became clear that a complete cleanup will not happen, planners began discussing redevelopment under the rubric of the EPA's 1996 Brownfield Program. So-called brownfield redevelopment is designed to enable the reuse of property contaminated by previous users such as military bases, chemical plants, and manufacturing facilities.

Brownfield redevelopment can help improve urban areas while reducing pressure to develop open lands outside city centers. The tradeoff is that such projects typically clean up little more than the most immediate threats to human health. The result is communities built atop or near polluted properties. Homes and schools are outfitted with special vapor barriers that prevent invasion of toxic subsurface gases. Strict deed restrictions often forbid residents to plant vegetable gardens or fruit trees, or dig down beyond a few feet.

But homebuyers in the Bay Area's sky-high real estate market don't seem at all bothered by the unseen potential risks associated with living on brownfields. In Alameda, the Catellus Development Corporation is building 485 homes on eighty acres that the Navy transferred to the city in 1998. The project, known as Bayport Alameda, is being built on land historically used for housing and considered relatively clean. Yet there are still contamination problems, especially with groundwater, and homeowners are restricted from digging beyond a certain depth without city permits, based upon their location in the development.

Despite these restrictions, the walled Bayport project has been very successful. The homes, a tightly packed mix of two-story bungalows, Spanish colonials, and English-style cottages, start between $750,000 and $900,000 and have been selling faster than they can be built. The first 24 homes were sold before there were even models for buyers to walk through, and some prices have since topped $1 million. The success of Bayport has made city officials and Alameda's master developer even keener to move ahead with large-scale development, even though the jury is still out on the potential health risks of brownfield development.

Alameda Point Community Partners has invested $10 million in the project since 2001 and will likely spend another $10 million before any serious work can begin. And that's when the real big bucks come into play. Before the first home is built, and long before the developer sees any return on investment, the company will have poured more than $100 million into preparing the property.

"We are approaching this project with the knowledge that all of the existing infrastructure will have to be replaced," Community Partners general manager Aidan Barry said. "The electric and gas lines, storm drains, water supply, sewage lines, roadways -- everything will be brand-new."

But if the city's most recent proposal falls through, Barry said his firm will have to reconsider whether its involvement still makes financial sense. City officials are especially concerned that if the company withdraws from the project, Alameda will have to search for a new master developer, which could delay development another two years.

"Essentially we would be starting from scratch," said Stephen Proud, the city's project manager for Alameda Point. "And if that happens, the project gets a little stigma attached and any potential new developers are going to look at it with a tougher eye."

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