Still Sitting on Contaminated Land 

Is the cleanup at Alameda Point serving the city's interests? Some observers aren't so sure.

Sometimes George Humphreys thinks the Navy is trying to kill him.

Standing in his living room on Bay Farm Island in Alameda, the 79-year-old retired nuclear and environmental engineer picks up a bulky white binder and flips it open with a laugh. "I almost got done in by one of these reports, one of these reports that's bigger than any of these," he said, gesturing to a pile of binders stacked two-feet and three-feet deep on the floor. "I was sitting here reading in my chair and the thing, because they're so heavy and they've got these huge clips in them ... the thing flipped over; the binder claws clamped on my leg. I was sitting here trying to get this thing off my leg and I'm thinking 'My god, they're going to find me here dead. Done in by one of the Navy's reports.'"

Humphreys is community co-chair of Alameda's Restoration Advisory Board, a Department of Defense-mandated citizen group created to help improve the department's cleanup program at the former Naval Air Station Alameda. Boards such as this one are meant to aid cleanup at the department's impressive nationwide portfolio of polluted properties by "increasing community understanding and support for cleanup efforts, improving the soundness of government decisions, and ensuring cleanups are responsive to community needs." It's a program built on transparency and citizen participation, with guidelines stating that the Department of Defense should "ensure that community issues and concerns related to restoration are addressed" after being raised by members of a local board. But Humphreys isn't sure whether that process is working at Alameda Point.

The land he says he's fighting to see restored properly — spanning 2,675 acres contaminated with everything from spilled jet fuel to radioactive wastes from radium paints once used on aircraft dials — is among the most costly and complex in the Navy's closure program, and the cleanup and conveyance process is behind the original schedule. "They talk about what they want to talk about," Humphreys said of the Navy, which he has challenged with increasing vigor in his three years as co-chair of the advisory board.

Although initially scheduled to be conveyed to the city in 2000, Alameda Point is still Navy property today. The Department of Defense currently remains responsible for restoring the base, which is on the Environmental Protection Agency's National Priorities List of hazardous waste sites requiring long-term remediation under the Superfund law. The City of Alameda has not yet worked out the details and liability concerns of buying and developing a property that it sold in 1936 for $1 and now must pay $108 million to the Navy to recoup. It remains to be seen how the handover will be arranged and who will be liable for cleanup once the conveyance is done, although it will likely be the Navy. But no matter how and when the transfer eventually goes down, Humphreys worries that Alameda will end up sitting on still-contaminated land after the military walks away.

For instance, at Site 25, which once served as Coast Guard housing and is just one of 35 separate restoration sites on the former base, the Navy merely dug up and replaced two feet of soil, leaving the layers beneath still contaminated with pollutants from a 19th-century oil refinery and various coal gasification plants that coughed soot into the air long before the Navy ever came to Alameda. "They haven't done any sampling under the buildings in Site 25, or under the roads, or around where there are trees, or anything," Humphreys complained. It disturbs him to see a soil cover no thicker than the stacks of reports in his living room. "I was contending that they should do four feet," he said, adding that "institutional controls" to prevent people from digging down into the contamination cannot be adequately enforced when the site eventually becomes a park, market-rate and affordable housing, and accommodations for the homeless, as the city currently envisions.

Alameda City Councilman Frank Matarrese agrees. "They talk a lot about institutional controls, which means 'Don't dig here,' basically," he explained. "And to me that's not acceptable."

Matarrese sits on the Alameda Reuse and Redevelopment Authority, the city agency overseeing the slow rebirth of the base. He believes that problems with the cleanup are manifold, beginning with the cost of conveyance and spreading into various individual sites, where he agrees with Humphreys that not enough characterization and cleanup of wastes has been done.

The councilman says the classic example of inadequate investigation and cleanup is a former landfill on the northwest edge of the base now known as Installation Restoration Site 1. It was here that the Navy dumped all wastes generated at the Naval Air Station between 1943 and 1956, with part of the area comprised of waste cells into which trash of all types was tossed. "It's an unlined waste pit that is somewhat characterized, meaning that the regulators have some idea of what's in there, but not completely," Matarrese explained. "And it's right on the most vulnerable end of the island — it's on the wetter side of the island where all the storms hit. There's no retaining wall; the island's being held up by a couple of sunken old barges," he said, referring to the submerged barges astride the landfill site that help to stabilize the shore. Matarrese and the Alameda Reuse and Redevelopment Authority want to see those landfill wastes sampled, labeled, and hauled away. But rather than identifying and excavating whatever's out there, the Navy simply wants to cover the area with four feet of soil and hand over the land without poking around to determine what dirty dregs may lay beneath.

Pat Brooks, the Navy's base environmental coordinator for Alameda, says that alternatives for the area have been thoroughly considered, and that hauling away the waste from the landfill area is one of several possibilities. "We look at it — it's one of the alternatives that we do evaluate," he explained. "It's just not our preferred alternative."

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