Point tour highlights toxic cleanup efforts

Point tour highlights toxic cleanup efforts

Michele Ellson

This year’s tour highlighting toxic cleanup efforts at Alameda Point forsook the technological whiz-bang of prior years’ cross-base bus rides for a more prosaic sight: A gaggle of Caspian terns perched on a sand bar in a restored wetland area that’s part of the 624-acre chunk of the former air station the Navy handed off to the Department of Veterans’ Affairs in June.

The two dozen or so regular Point watchers who attended Saturday’s tour – dubbed the “toxic tour” by veterans of the annual two-hour bus ride – posed for a photograph. Then they got back on the bus, where several raised questions and offered comments that laid plain their continuing concerns about the adequacy of the Navy’s efforts to deal with a laundry list of toxins it dumped, spilled and buried during more than half a century on the Island, turning the base into a federal Superfund site.

This year’s tour comes at a propitious time for the Navy. The surprise announcement Saturday that it has completed its handoff of 624 acres of the Point to the VA means that the vast majority of the former Navy base is off its hands. In 2013, Alameda got 1,379 acres – which is a little less than half the land and water Alameda Point occupies – and the city has moved swiftly in its attempt to kick-start revitalization efforts.

But the 488 acres the Navy still holds may present some of the most intractable and controversial cleanup challenges it faces. A conveyance map released by the city in 2013 showed Alameda taking title to the rest of the Point acreage it expects to get from the Navy by 2019; a program review offered Saturday showed the cleanup of some parts of the Point taking place through 2021 and beyond.

Back in 2010, regulators said they believed cleanup efforts at Alameda Point would be completed within five years; $122 million had been committed to finalizing cleanup efforts, on top of the $466 million that had already been spent.

The hotspots include the tour’s first stop, a 37-acre former dump and burn site at the northwestern tip of the Point that’s contaminated with solvents, oil, heavy metals and radioactive materials which is to be one day transformed into a park. The Navy is injecting chemicals into a plume of contaminated groundwater in an effort to shrink it, work it expects to complete sometime next year. Soil cleanup – which involves scraping off and removing the top foot of soil in areas contaminated with radioactive materials and covering them with clean dirt – started this month.

But members of the Restoration Advisory Board – a citizens’ watchdog group set up to oversee cleanup efforts at the base – have publicly questioned whether the 750-foot-long metal wall the Navy wants to build along the shoreline in order to keep toxins out of San Francisco Bay will be strong enough to survive an earthquake. And a consultant working with the Navy confirmed Saturday that some of the soil being used to cover the contaminants came from the shores of Treasure Island – soil that board member and retired nuclear and environmental engineer George Humphreys said is contaminated with lead shot.

The shallow groundwater under another site, at the southeastern edge of the Point – 17.5 acres that housed a Pacific Coast Oil Works Company refinery at the turn of the century and later, an aircraft overhaul plant and engine test facility – is contaminated with benzene, which is thought to cause cancer, among other ills. The Navy expects to have that cleaned up by 2016, though a cleanup plan has yet to be approved, online records show.

The Navy is working to clean up a 41,000-square-foot patch of solvent-contaminated groundwater under the fourth of five planned stops on the tour, a former aircraft maintenance facility that sits in an area the city hopes will one day be Alameda Point’s town center, using lecithin, a common food additive that bacteria already in the ground can use as fuel to degrade the chemical contaminants. The Navy expects the broader area the groundwater plume sits in to be cleaned up by 2016.

A fifth tour stop – a building occupied by unmanned shipbuilder Saildrone and Photon Composites, which builds wings and foils for big catamarans like the ones that raced in the America’s Cup – was locked up tight when the bus rolled around for a visit.

The building is not a formal cleanup area, said Derek Robinson, the Alameda Point environmental coordinator for the federal Base Realignment and Closure effort; he characterized it as a “maintenance area.” Robinson said the Navy is scanning interior walls and sink basins on the building’s third floor for radium contamination due to work that was done there when the Navy occupied it.

He said the lower floors, which are occupied, have been scanned and have determined to be safe for the people who now work in them.

“We’re doing the maintenance, making sure the building is clean and safe, at least the area that is affected,” Robinson said.

The federal government has spent more than a half billion dollars cleaning up Alameda Point, and tour materials projected another $83.7 million in cleanup costs in 2015 and beyond. The Navy originally estimated cleanup costs at $100 million, and the city expected to have the Point in hand by 2000 – three years after the Navy base closed.

The city hopes to build or rehabilitate 5.5 million square feet of commercial space, 1,425 homes and 260 acres of parks at the former Naval air station, transforming it from a vast expanse of rotting buildings and cracked concrete into an economic engine and transit-friendly residential hub. The city is vetting proposals to develop a town center and a commercial area where city staffers want to see a corporate campus or outlet mall, and others to purchase pieces of the Point for development.

The VA wants to build an outpatient clinic and an aboveground cemetery on 112 of the 624 acres it now owns; it must maintain the rest as a wildlife preserve for terns, migratory birds and other wildlife.

Madeline Rose Searle-Bray contributed to this report.


Submitted by Joseph (not verified) on Wed, Jul 16, 2014

Thanks for the summary. The 37-acre dump and burn site sounds like the most problematic. Since we know surface soils on Treasure Island have been found to contain radioactive material, is the Navy simply relocating toxic materials? Is the "attempt to shrink" the toxic plume with injected chemicals a dilution of the pollution, or is there a chemical process involved? The Navy estimated they'd spend $100 million and hand it over 14 years ago, but have spend $500 million (so far) and expect the final handover after 2020? Wow.

Richard Bangert's picture
Submitted by Richard Bangert on Wed, Jul 16, 2014

Joseph, Yes, there is a chemical process involved with the groundwater plume. It's described in this post on the Environmental Report http://alamedapointenvironmentalreport.wordpress.com/2012/08/31/ending-t...

The Treasure Island soil is soil that was dredged from off shore where a skeet range used to be. The reason for the dredging is to eliminate the threat of lead poisoning of diving ducks. The dredge soil was brought to Alameda Point because the Navy already had a drying pad set up on the north side of the Seaplane Lagoon. The soil was tested in batches after drying. If the batch exceeded acceptable levels it went to a special dump. Otherwise, it went out to the northwest corner - Site 1 - where is will be used as a base layer. Three feet of clean material - probably from the same place as the other landfill soil cover, which was Decker Island - will go on top of the base layer.

The main issue that concerned the Restoration Advisory Board out at the Site 1 landfill remediation project is the in-water metal retaining barrier that was added late in the process http://alamedapointenvironmentalreport.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/cleanup-.... The questions are, will it withstand a catastrophic earthquake, and who or what agency will replace the barrier when it reaches the end of its lifespan. Right now, the Navy would have to fix a failure, but the city would have to replace the barrier some day because it will be city land. By the time the city gets this parcel in about five years, there's a good chance there will be some money forthcoming for an escrow repair account, otherwise the city may balk at taking the parcel.

As for the extended cleanup time and wildly-over-the-original-budget cleanup tab, be glad they didn't stop at $100 million. It's been expensive because of the layer upon layer of review, and reviews of the reviews, and then, maybe we need to do some more tests, and wait, the state just changed the standards, layers and layers of review, which is what drove the costs up. Way more money has been spent on the review process than actual equipment in the field.

Submitted by Michele Ellson on Thu, Jul 17, 2014

Thanks Joseph for your question and Richard, for the answers. For those of you who don't know, Richard Bangert is on the Restoration Advisory Board and the brains behind the Alameda Point Environmental Report blog (which he's linked in his comment), and is a wealth of information about all things Alameda Point.