Comment sought on environmental impacts of clinic, cemetery at Alameda Point

Comment sought on environmental impacts of clinic, cemetery at Alameda Point

Michele Ellson

A 112-acre veterans’ cemetery and outpatient clinic the Department of Veterans Affairs hopes to build at Alameda Point won’t have a significant impact on the California Least Tern colony that breeds on the runways nearby, a draft environmental assessment the government released on Friday says – as long as the VA and other agencies follow a list of measures outlined by the federal agency charged with protecting it.

Comments on the assessment, which examines noise, traffic and other impacts the development could create, are being accepted through March 29. A pair of public meetings to discuss it will take place from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. March 14 at the USS Hornet Museum, 707 West Hornet Avenue, Pier 3.

The preferred plan outlined in the assessment would see the Navy handing the VA 624 acres on the southwest corner of Alameda Point, most of which would remain undeveloped. The Navy’s original plan – which was also studied – was to transfer 549 acres to the VA, but the development was shifted north to address concerns about its impact on the terns.

The VA wants to build a 158,000-square-foot outpatient clinic offering an array of services and a benefits office and an 80-acre columbarium to better serve some 9,000 veterans in northern Alameda County who must now travel farther to receive them. The VA hopes to open its new Alameda Point facility in 2017, a year before leases on buildings that provide some of the services in Oakland expire.

Veterans now must travel to Martinez or Sacramento for many of the same services, the assessment says. Cemeteries in San Bruno and at San Francisco’s Presidio are closed to new interments, leaving veterans’ families to consider Sacramento and Santa Nella for their loved ones.

The report’s authors determined that the development won’t have a significant impact on any of the 14 items studied. They said the development will actually improve views and won’t disturb any archaeological resources as the Point was built on fill, largely over the first half of the 20th century.

While the project would put additional cars on the road, it wouldn’t make a significant contribution to traffic that is already projected to worsen as other developments come online, the assessment says.

In order to avoid a projected sea level rise of 55 inches by 2099, the ground will be raised to 13.5 feet above sea level from its current stature of zero to 10 feet above the water. And the builders will need to consider piles and other measures, such as stone columns or compaction, in order to mitigate the affects of an earthquake.

Wetlands that would be destroyed by the project could be rebuilt elsewhere in the Bay Area, it says.

The VA, which has been working to consolidate and expand its services for local veterans since 2004 and which requested the old runways at Alameda Point in 2006, has agreed to take responsibility for any new toxics found on the acreage they’re seeking after the Navy hands over the land, the assessment says, and the Navy will continue to clean up what it has already found.

The property to be transferred includes the base’s former runways; the old West Beach landfill, which was the base’s main disposal area from 1952 to 1978 and is thought to contain 1.6 million tons of waste laced with metals, pesticides and other toxics on 60 of its 110 acres; and a portion of the site of a former fire training center where vinyl chloride was found in the groundwater and its vapors in indoor air. Another site just outside of the property’s boundaries is being investigated for possible radiological contamination.

The property was originally requested in 1996 by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which sought to create a wildlife refuge there. But negotiations broke down over who would be responsible for any toxics found there after the service took possession of the property, and the VA requested it a decade later.

Open space advocates have expressed concerns about the impacts the proposed development would have on the 9.7-acre least tern colony – one of the bird’s largest breeding colonies in California – and other birds who use the old runways as a nesting spot and migratory stopover, though some have said they’re not concerned about the terns because the VA will be required to take certain steps to properly manage the colony. They’re also concerned about whether the VA will be able to successfully manage the colony, and other birds that frequent the area that are not on the endangered list.

Prior to the draft assessment’s release, Paul Kibel, a professor at Golden Gate University’s Center on Urban Environmental Law, expressed concerns that undeveloped property overseen by the VA won’t provide the same protections as a formal refuge controlled by the wildlife service, and also that the assessment would short-circuit further study of potential development impacts in order to hasten the transfer of the property. Had any significant impacts listed, the Navy and VA would have been required to conduct a more thorough environmental review; without them, they could stop when the assessment is completed.

Kibel thinks the VA development might be better placed elsewhere on the former Navy base, like the spot where the city had hoped Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory would build a second campus. He said an additional environmental study would help ensure a more thorough examination of alternative locations for the VA development.

The wildlife service initially balked at providing a report detailing the impacts a development could have on endangered species, in part over concerns about the harm they felt the VA development could cause the least tern, prompting a furious round of closed-door meetings between the service, the Navy, the VA, city officials and the East Bay Regional Park District which led to the compromise plan. It pushes the development into the Northwest Territories, which had been slated for park use by the city, and moves the development around in order to put nearly 1,800 feet between it and the terns.

The service produced a report on the new plan, called a biological opinion, last August, saying the proposed development would have an adverse affect on the terns. It listed measures the Navy, the VA and the city will need to take to curb those impacts that include minimizing structure and foliage heights, keeping feral cats and other potential predators away, limiting training and inventory restocking in bunkers on the proposed site to non-breeding months, and minimizing lighting. The VA will also be required to hire a professional contractor to manage the tern colony; the wildlife service manages it for the Navy now.

Separately, City Councilmen Stewart Chen and Tony Daysog have carried a resolution to their dais-mates seeking to affirm the city’s support for the creation of a wildlife refuge at the Point; city staffers are set to provide a report on the proposed resolution in mid-March.

Some open space advocates and others who have been following the process have questioned whether the impacts of the VA project and the development the city envisions at Alameda Point – which includes 1,425 new and existing homes, 5.5 million square feet of commercial space and parks – should be studied together, rather than separately. While the Navy and VA released the draft assessment on Friday, the Planning Board held a second hearing Monday to decide what alternatives the city should include in an environmental study for its own development plans.

Alameda Point Chief Operating Officer Jennifer Ott said the federal plans – which don’t require city approval – are separate and much farther along than the city’s.

The draft environmental assessment can be found here; copies are also available at Alameda’s main and branch libraries, and an abstract is below. Comments may be offered at the public hearings or addressed to Douglas Roaldson, environmental program manager, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs/VISN 21, 201 Walnut Avenue, Room 1020, Mare Island, CA 94592-1107. Comments may also be made by fax, at (707) 562-8369 or e-mail, at Alameda.EA@va.gov.

Comments

Submitted by J. Carter on Tue, Feb 26, 2013

Hopefully without sound too cynical, it seems to me that trying to get large entities like BP, to clean up a toxic mess, or to protect wildlife, is fraught with resistance and wishful thinking, and guided by political games and manipulations of the facts, particularly when it comes as an obstacle to "progress." Here we have some incredibly coveted land in an area known for its exorbitant monetary valuation machine, and I believe it behooves us as a community to be wise, informed, and not overly trusting, while we keep our true values in the forefront: what is good for Alameda in the long term, what is good for our ecosystem, what is good, generally. For so long now, the idea of "progress" has been about greed, about the trashing of our beautiful country, and about stripping out the natural resources without a thought to the future. It's heartening to me to hear that a wildlife refuge is being discussed. I think now, that euphemistic use of the term "progress" is changing, because of good folks seeing the light, and the destruction. Now, "progress" is about restoration and conservation--sustainability. Let's do the right thing, Alameda!

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