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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"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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