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."

The Navy considers a number of factors in choosing its remedy for each area, including compliance with environmental guidelines, overall protection of human health and the environment, implementability, and long-term effectiveness. But, of course, cost also is an issue: according to the 2006 proposed plan for Site 1, a "single 4-foot-thick layer of compacted soil, covering approximately 25.8 acres, which would act as a physical barrier and prevent direct contact with contaminated soil or radium" would cost $3.3 million to install. Meanwhile, "excavation and off-site disposal of all soil and radium-impacted items from Area 1" would cost $91.9 million.

Anna-Marie Cook, who oversees Alameda Point for the Environmental Protection Agency, says that an engineered soil cap is a conservative long-term protective measure for the landfill. "It's a difficult task to fully characterize a landfill," she said. "And that philosophy lends itself, in my opinion, to having a protective cap on the landfill, stabilizing the walls of the landfill, having guardwells to monitor that nothing is getting out to the bay, and then providing a protective cap that will ensure no exposure to terrestrial receptors, including humans." Both excavation and capping are equally protective, she argues, but "technical considerations are a big component" in addition to cost. Ultimately, she said, the effort involved outweighs the benefits of excavation.

Consequently, Brooks said, a four-foot soil cap and rocky rodent barrier is "still the plan we're working with." But that plan has recently expanded, due in part to George Humphreys and the Restoration Advisory Board. At a September meeting of the Alameda Reuse and Redevelopment Authority, Humphreys brought a small storm of local attention to the board when he attacked the Navy's approach to the much-debated, highly contaminated 78-acre landfill site abutting the bay. Presenting a letter signed by eight fellow board members, he urged the Navy to take "immediate action to correct the deficiencies" in its approach to Site 1. "It is unacceptable that this site has for decades been releasing contaminants into the waters of the Bay, apparently with the acquiescence of the regulatory agencies," read the letter. "The proposed plan, if implemented, would leave uncharacterized industrial-type wastes in a condition vulnerable to future releases by seismic damage, shoreline erosion, site inundation, and incursion by burrowing animals."

In response to these concerns, Brooks said the Navy discussed these issues with its new contractor, the highly regarded environmental and geotechnical consulting and engineering firm AMEC. "And that resulted in an agreement to do some more sampling — to look at areas that needed more information to help clarify the remedy," he said. In addition to doing this new sampling, AMEC will cut back the shoreline to provide seismic stability, haul away a "burn area" where the Navy once torched its trash and bulldozed the ashes into the bay, install a new network of groundwater-monitoring wells, and treat the soup of volatile organic compounds — including vinyl chloride, trichloroethylene, dichloroethene, and benzene — which has long polluted the groundwater there. And though a final plan on what to do with Site 1 was once scheduled for October 2008, the Navy has pushed this back to do further study to adequately address city and community concerns.

Brooks said excavation in the burn area is supposed to be finished next October. "That's kind of the first area that we're targeting," he said. "And the entire remedy is supposed to be in place by April 2011." He noted that the planned sampling and trenching to find the edges of the waste cells are steps that the Alameda Reuse and Redevelopment Authority and the Restoration Advisory Board have wanted to see. "It's a variety of trenching to find soil samples, visual observation of what's beneath the surface, borings to collect samples for chemical analyses, and also geotechnical analyses that help us evaluate what chemicals may be in the soil, what the strength of the soil is, that sort of thing," he said.

But nothing is easy at Alameda Point. City staffers and members of the advisory board continue to contest the Navy's current plan for the former landfill. "I think that they're making progress," offered Humphreys, who sees many of the newer plans as a genuine, albeit long-awaited, improvement. "But they still seem to be avoiding digging where stuff might be." Humphreys believes that the most recent trenching study — which found debris and radiologically impacted soil but little actual intact waste — erred by digging too close to the edges of some of the cells. In his estimation, it's possible that the trenching missed the waste within those pits, and he wants to see further trenching done within the individual cells rather than to find the boundaries of the waste area, as the Navy has planned.

And his concerns extend beyond the waste cells to a Navy investigation he characterizes as only surface deep. "They seem to do everything two feet," he said, noting that the newest plans for sampling along the beach at Site 1 will involve taking one- and two-foot samples. But Humphreys wants to see deeper digging. "They're not really sampling where the plume might be coming out," he said, using the waste-world term for groundwater contamination.

Brooks, on the other hand, is confident that the process will work — after all, it's dynamic, and adjustments can be made once the work begins. "There's always a judgment call when you get into the field," he explained.

Matarrese and the reuse and redevelopment authority still insist that the waste at Site 1 be fully characterized before any decisions are made on how to proceed. "The more vulnerable the area, the more exposed the contaminant has the potential to be, I think the more proof we need that we've truly addressed the situation," he said. "Do good quality assurance. Make sure that we have good assurance and good, relevant data. And we've got people like George, who's an engineer who really knows what he's talking about. He's not an average person off the street — he knows what he's talking about. And he's worried. I'm worried."

Less worried is Peter Russell, the city's environmental consultant for Alameda Point. Russell has a hunch — based partly on the trenching study that found so little waste, partly on anecdotal evidence he's in the process of investigating, and partly on the fact that the Navy built a runway on Site 1 after it ceased serving as the base dump — that the landfill contents may long ago have been moved to a spot to the south. That spot, which is the subject of a public meeting this week (and is likely to be the advisory board's next big headache) is the post-1956 landfill — also right next to the bay, and possibly even more contaminated than Site 1 — now known as Site 2.

"Perhaps there's not actually a landfill there anymore," said Russell of the older dump site, which has consumed much of his recent attention. "Maybe the residual contamination is much smaller than the Navy had anticipated." Russell said it's an intriguing possibility that could mean "hauling away is a possibility" after all. It also could result in different ultimate uses for Site 1 — and a quicker timeframe for redevelopment.

Still, Russell believes that his and Humphreys' positions come down to the same thing. "The landfill footprint itself should be looked at more thoroughly before the final decision making," he said.

Seeing development begin at Alameda Point remains the city's top concern, according to Alameda's base project manager, Debbie Potter. In fact, current developer SunCal's master plan for the site is due to the city this week. But she noted that final decisions on how to proceed ultimately belong to the Navy and the environmental regulatory agencies. "There's a common misconception out there where people think that the city already owns the base," she said. "We clearly see ourselves as an interested stakeholder in how the cleanup happens here. ... What we really try to do is monitor all of the documents — and as you can see, there are lots and lots and lots of them — and provide feedback and comments and participate in doing what we can to influence the Navy's decision-making about the specific properties."

Indeed, the puzzling trenching study on Site 1 was done at the city's behest. But Russell noted that even in that situation, not everything went as Alameda would have wanted it, "They did not collect any samples to analyze in a laboratory to see whether there was any contamination in the soil," he said of the 2007 operation. "And that has stuck in the craw of George and the [advisory board] — rightly so." Russell noted that the reuse and redevelopment authority asked the Navy to do this in its letter. "It would have been good if it had been done when the trenching was done," he added, "but frankly I felt lucky to do the trenching, because there was a lot of resistance at the time."

Even with this history of resistance from the Navy, Russell expects that the reuse and redevelopment authority's standards for Site 1 will be met. "Generally we always provide sound technical arguments, and the regulators are pleased to have additional expertise having a look at the subject. And they usually say 'Yeah, that's right, you need to look into this further.' We actually have quite a good relationship with the regulators but also with the Navy. The Navy generally agrees with us once we have discussed it a bit."

Matarrese, however, is less optimistic about influencing the regulators to influence the Navy. It doesn't surprise him when the Navy argues for soil caps or bans on digging rather than waste removal, he said, because "they're not land managers — they're not an environmental organization."

For Berkeley resident Dale Smith, a representative of the Sierra Club and Golden Gate Audubon Society who will take over for Humphreys next year as community co-chair of the advisory board, it's the regulatory agencies — the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board — rather than the Navy which are the major impediments to getting things cleaned up to what she considers an acceptable level. "Overall, the most pressing issue is the lack of spines on the part of the regulatory agencies," Smith said. "What I have found most bases do when they are trying to weasel is they fully characterize each and every site as to what extent of contamination is present, then walk away from it saying 'We've characterized it, you know what you're buying.'" At Alameda, she complained, "The regulators sit on their hands, smile politely, chit-chat among themselves, laugh and giggle, and are totally without desire to see to it that it's even characterized. That is the biggest problem I have with the entire project. They're bored out of their gourd and they're just taking their paychecks and going home."

Cook of the EPA responds that the public simply doesn't see the amount of negotiation that goes on behind the scenes. "When I want something done that is going to cost a lot of money from the Navy or is going to change their schedule or force them to do something that they didn't anticipate having to do, I can get them to do it," she said. And in her estimation, the progress at the base speaks for itself, particularly in the last five years: "We really have gotten all the mechanisms in place to move things forward — we've got the funding, we've got the schedule that's a legal mandate, and we have all the authority that we need to be able to press issues. ... What I think is missing from the public information is the extent of the work that's being done out there."

And certainly much has been accomplished at Alameda Point. Pat Brooks, speaking on his cell phone in a hardware store as he shopped for materials to make Humphreys a plaque honoring his three years as advisory board co-chair, acknowledged that there are elements of the cleanup that need improvement, but also pointed to the huge amounts of work that have gone on at the base. The Department of Defense has spent $381 million to date on remediation, and the budget for this fiscal year is $41.5 million. Operations across the base have resulted in 63,000 pounds of jet fuel being pumped out the ground in one site alone — overall, approximately half of the total areas of contamination are in the cleanup stage right now. At the Seaplane Lagoon, which the city hopes to someday see reinvented as a marina, the Navy has hauled away huge amounts of debris and expects, when the project is completed, to have taken out a total of 25,000 cubic yards — enough to fill a football field to a height of 14 feet, according to Brooks.

It doesn't hurt, however, to remember that the City of Alameda had a little to do with that accomplishment. "There were two big piles of dirt that the Navy had dumped into the Seaplane Lagoon several decades ago," recalled Peter Russell, "and the Navy was pretty much ignoring it. And the [authority] had to squawk quite a bit to keep it from slipping through the cracks. Long story short, the Navy went out and sampled it, and lo and behold, it was contaminated. And now they're digging it out. Most of it is being disposed of as hazardous waste."

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