Navy seeks changes to landfill cleanup plan

Navy seeks changes to landfill cleanup plan

Michele Ellson

The Navy wants to change its cleanup plan for a former Naval Air Station landfill. Maps from the Navy's 2009 cleanup plan for the landfill and its environs.

New information about a former dump at Alameda Point that’s contaminated with radium and a host of other toxic chemicals could prompt changes in the controversial plan to clean it up. But the Navy’s proposed changes would do little to reduce the amount of hazardous waste buried in the dump, which fronts onto San Francisco Bay.

The Navy proposed changes to a 2009 cleanup plan for the dump after learning the portion the former Naval Air Station's workers used to burn waste is bigger than originally believed. Members of the City Council and a board tasked with overseeing cleanup efforts at the Point had criticized the plan in part because they said the Navy hadn’t yet gathered enough information about toxins at the site, though one board member said the discovery was a good thing.

The Navy is now proposing to excavate and dump all the soil and burnt waste on the site into a steel bulkhead surrounding the thickest portion of the burn area and to cover the entire site with soil. The top foot of any soil contaminated with radioactive materials would be excavated and hauled away.

A public hearing to take comments on the new cleanup proposal will be held on April 9.

From 1943-1956 the Navy used the 25-acre site as its primary landfill, the 2009 cleanup plan says, dumping anywhere between 15,000 tons to 200,000 tons of waste there that may include old airplane engines, waste oil, solvents and construction debris. Materials from the radium-contaminated instrumentation shop were dumped in an unlined trench at the site, as were brushes, rags and other items used to apply radioactive paint to aircraft instruments. In the 1950s the Navy began burning its waste and bulldozing the residue into the Bay.

The Navy began investigating potential contamination at the old dump in 1983, determining a year later that the toxics there didn’t pose a threat to human health. In the years that followed, the Navy determined the site was contaminated with a soup of toxic chemicals that includes chromium and lead, vinyl chloride, the pesticide DDT and radium; in 2008 the Navy removed some, but not all, of the soil found in a host of radioactive “hot spots,” some of which showed radioactivity many multiples above normal, naturally occurring levels.

Under the 2009 plan – which was a decade in the making – the Navy was set to remove the top layer of soil at additional radioactive “hot spots” and to cover the rest of the former dump with four feet of soil. The burn area, which the Navy then believed to cover 3.7 acres, was to be excavated, with soil that contained potentially explosive ordnance and radioactive and other contamination that exceeded certain levels to be carted off site and the rest to be put back in place. A contaminated groundwater plume was to be injected with additional chemicals intended to make the toxins it contains less hazardous.

Since the cleanup plan wouldn’t reduce toxins at the site to levels that would make it safe for people to live there, the Navy instituted controls barring homebuilding there (most of the land is part of the state’s Tidelands Trust, which restricts development to water-serving uses). New structures and roads are also barred on the site per the 2009 plan, though the Navy says the site will be safe enough for the park that's planned there.

Still, the 2009 plan acknowledged that it “does not satisfy the statutory preference for a remedy that reduces the toxicity, mobility, or volume of hazardous substances through treatment as a principal element,” adding that several treatment technologies had been considered and eliminated due to concerns over effectiveness, implementation and cost. A review is due in 2014.

The city’s 1996 reuse plan, which it is using as a roadmap for its current revitalization efforts, shows a park and Bay Trail on the former dump site, which is part of a section of the former base now known as the Northwest Territories. A proposed clinic and cemetery for veterans would be constructed south and east of the site.

When the plan was being finalized, members of the City Council and the Restoration Advisory Board, which oversees the base cleanup efforts, said they believed the Navy hadn’t done enough to find out what toxics were where at the site and that the plan did too little to clean it up; they wanted the Navy to excavate and remove all of the contaminated soil. But to do so would have cost the Navy an estimated $91.9 million, instead of the $18.1 million its preferred plan would cost, and cost is one of the factors the Navy is supposed to consider when choosing a cleanup plan.

But contractors preparing the site for cleanup determined that the burn area was larger than the Navy’s cleanup plan said it was, extending further to the north and south and also deeper than originally believed. That triggered the need to amend the plan.

Members of the board who were contacted by The Alamedan said they're still studying the proposed changes, though one member, Richard Bangert, said the discovery of the additional burn area isn't proof the Navy did shoddy work in investigating the site. Former City Councilman Frank Matarrese, who had been a critic of the 2009 plan, noted the site has been "a big problem for cleanup" but said the Navy has done a lot of work to draft plan changes.

"The bulkhead option does have to come with the Navy retaining responsibility for its maintenance, especially in the likely event of soil shift, or earthquake and/or inevitable sea-level rise," Matarrese said in response to an e-mailed inquiry from a reporter.

A Navy representative listed the efforts the Navy made to ensure it had a handle on what contamination exists on the site, and where.

"This characterization provided a better understanding of the nature and extent of the burn residue and will allow for completion of an accurate remedial design," said Derek Robinson, the Navy's environmental coordinator for the cleanup effort.

The 1,560-acre Naval Air Station closed in 1997 and was declared a federal Superfund site in 1999. The Navy has spent roughly half a billion dollars to date to clean up contamination at the base, most of which it still owns; the city is hoping to receive about 500 acres this year, while the Department of Veterans Affairs is set to receive another 624 acres.

The Navy is taking comments on its proposed cleanup plan through April 24; a public meeting where comments may be offered will be held from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. April 9 at the Main Library, 1550 Oak Street. Written comments can be sent to Derek Robinson, BRAC Environmental Coordinator, U.S. Department of the Navy, BRAC Program Management Office West, 1455 Frazee Road, Suite 900, San Diego, California 92108. Comments can also be offered by fax, at (619) 532‐0983, or via e-mail at