City, citizen group question Alameda Point cleanup proposal

City, citizen group question Alameda Point cleanup proposal

Michele Ellson
Source: OU-2C Final Proposed Plan

City officials and a citizen group are questioning the Navy’s proposed plan to address the risks posed by radioactive paint and other toxic chemicals that lie under a group of buildings at the heart of Alameda Point, saying the Navy focused too much on cleanup costs in creating its plan and questioning whether they know enough about what contaminants are in the ground to move forward with it.

Both city officials and the citizen Restoration Advisory Board that is overseeing Point cleanup efforts wants the Navy to undertake a more extensive cleanup of the industrial center of the Navy’s former operation, a 53-acre site that includes a 910,382-square-foot building on West Tower Avenue where the Navy’s airplanes were cleaned and maintained; a missile rework facility; and a former power plant.

"The city wants the Navy to conduct further investigation to better design the specifics of removal - bottom line is the city wishes to remove radiological contamination irrespective of cost," said Dina Tasini, the city’s acting chief operating officer for Alameda Point. "Removal of radiological material will insure no human health risk."

A Navy representative denied putting cost ahead of safety.

“The process requires any selective remedial response is protective of human health and the environment,” said Derek Robinson, the civilian Navy employee managing cleanup efforts at Alameda Point. He said that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control and the California Water Board – all of which oversee the Navy’s cleanup efforts – determined all of the remediation proposals protect human health; EPA, DTSC and the San Francisco Bay Regional Quality Control Board all concurred with the plan.

The Restoration Advisory Board meets at 6:30 p.m. today at City Hall West, 950 West Mall Square. The public can comment on the Navy’s plans at that meeting or in writing through November 5; city officials are working on a letter that they plan to present to the City Council on November 7, Tasini said.

City leaders have pinned high hopes on Alameda Point, which they would like to redevelop into a community with about 1,400 homes, a strong commercial base and parks. They’d like to build an employment base in the buildings on the site.

Meanwhile, the Navy has spent more that a half billion dollars cleaning up the Point, far more than they ever envisioned cleanup efforts there would cost; the Navy’s cleanup budget for 2013 is $12 million, about a third of its budget this year. On a recent tour highlighting cleanup efforts at the Point, Robinson said he thought the Navy’s cleanup efforts would be complete in 2016.

The Navy has already completed several cleanup efforts on the site, according to a narrative that accompanies its proposed plan. Some 700 feet of drain line that carried radium were removed in 1998, and between 2001 and 2002, the Navy excavated and removed 1,750 cubic yards of soil contaminated with cadmium, chromium and lead in the plating shop area of the former airplane maintenance building. Between 2008 and 2010 the Navy removed 9,500 feet of drain line that led from the buildings to Seaplane Lagoon, along with 29,000 cubic yards of soil. Some groundwater cleanup was also undertaken in the years leading up to the current proposal.

Even with those cleanup efforts, the Navy has determined that some areas of the site wouldn’t be safe for human habitation because the risk that someone living their could contract cancer or another illness from the chemicals still in the ground and groundwater is higher than what’s acceptable. The risk of illness in one area of the site, dubbed Exposure Unit 3, exceeds allowable levels for future office workers and residents as well, according to a chart that accompanies the Navy’s proposal.

Under the new proposal, the Navy would leave soil containing toxic metals and volatile organic compounds like benzene and vinyl chloride that sit underneath the former airplane maintenance and missile rework facilities in place, saying the current building slabs and pavement that surrounds the buildings are enough to protect future workers from harm. They’re also proposing to clear soil and sediment that could be contaminated with radium out of drain lines under and around the buildings and to seal them into the ground with grout.

The Navy’s plans also include treatment of shallow groundwater under the buildings and a prohibition on the use of contaminated groundwater that lies further beneath the site. They’re saying the cleanup efforts would make the site safe enough for future office workers, but their proposed plan would not clean the site up enough for people to live on it.

The Navy estimates its proposed remediation plan for the site would cost $9.8 million; for three of the four separate cleanup efforts it is undertaking, it chose the cheapest actionable alternative under consideration. For example, its plan to monitor soils and grout drain lines – one of four cleanup efforts proposed for the site – would cost an estimated $800,000; adding a partial soil excavation would increase that cost to $1.98 million, while the fuller soil excavations desired by the city and citizens board would cost more than $40 million according to the Navy’s estimates.

Cost is one of nine evaluation criteria the Navy uses to determine what strategies it will pursue to protect people and animals from hazardous chemicals present on its former bases; the list is topped by protection of human health and the environment and includes effectiveness, reduction of toxicity and state and community acceptance.

In a 2011 letter signed by all but one of the members of the Restoration Advisory Board, the body requested the Navy perform a more extensive cleanup of the site. They said they wanted the Navy to remove contaminated soil from the site and perform more extensive treatment of groundwater, and that they want the site cleaned up to residential standards.

They questioned whether the Navy could maintain pavement and building slabs over the radium’s 1,620-year half-life or the prohibition on groundwater use over a long term.

Their preferred groundwater cleanup methods at the Navy’s proposed commercial cleanup standard – which is lower than the standard for residential use – would cost an estimated $7.7 million. The Navy’s proposed strategies would cost an estimated $3.2 million.

“We just want it cleaned up more. We are pushing it there,” said Dale Smith, co-chair of the citizen board.

Robinson said Department of Defense policy requires historical, current and future use to be considered in the cleanup decision-making process; he said the commercial cleanup standards being proposed are “consistent with historic and future reuse of the property.” The city’s plans show it as “employment – adaptive reuse.”

In a separate letter, the citizen board said they were having a hard time getting the Navy to answer their questions on the site, and that they were concerned the Navy hadn’t done enough work to gain a true understanding of the contamination it may hold. Tasini said the Navy is relying on data from soil samples that were taken outside the site in its determination of what mitigation efforts should be made there.

“It has been our experience in the past that due to a lack of thorough site characterization, contaminants frequently are not detected until clean-up is underway,” the February 4, 2011 letter said.

Robinson said the Navy expects to do additional sampling and investigation, but he said the work conducted between 1991 and 2007 was enough for the Navy to know what needs to be done to make the site safe.

“Although additional sampling is expected for the remedial design, the current site characterization is considered appropriate to evaluate remedial alternatives and to select the preferred remedy,” he said.

City officials are concerned about the future marketability of the site and also future efforts to install utility lines there which could put construction crews in accidental contact with the drain lines that would be left in place, Tasini said.

"We think they inadequately investigated the issue," she said. "And we want them to investigate more."

Comments on the Navy’s proposed plan, posted below, may be made in person at the Restoration Advisory Board’s meeting or in writing. Written comments may be addressed to Mr. Derek Robinson, BRAC Environmental Coordinator, Department of the Navy, Program Management Office West, 1455 Frazee Road, Suite 900, San Diego, CA 92108-4310 or sent via e-mail to


Richard Bangert's picture
Submitted by Richard Bangert on Fri, Oct 12, 2012

Taking care of all the contamination under Building 5 will require a collaborative effort that involves federal money to demolish the building. It’s not really practical to cut away the majority of the building slab to clean up the soil and then expect that the structural integrity of the building can be re-established. The slab is keeping this massive structure from spreading apart at the outer walls.

One thing that should be done, but was rejected for cost reasons, is remove the old Industrial Waste Line that is between Building 5 and West Tower Ave. This contaminated line is in such bad shape that it cannot be power washed with high pressure as has been done on other lines. We don’t know exactly what may have leaked out so far. And the water table flow in this area has been mapped for other work (the petroleum work in the fenced area between Building 5 and West Tower Ave.), and it flows eventually toward the Seaplane Lagoon. Filling it with cement grout doesn’t solve the problem, and someday it may be in the way of future infrastructure. Do we really want radiological warning signs to be going up during removal of a contaminated drain line when we are trying to find investors to invest in new buildings or building upgrades?

If you compare alternatives D5 and D6 in the document attachment in The Alamedan story above, you will see that the cost of removing the Industrial Waste Line is $10 million. The Navy chose D5, which leaves the Industrial Waste Line in place.

I wrote about the drain lines last year. There is a paragraph on the Industrial Waste Line.