Still Sitting on Contaminated Land 

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

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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.

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