On Point: Two hours on a bus
On Point: Two hours on a bus
On Saturday, nearly four dozen people boarded a bus – environmentalists, engineers, and the occasional journalist – for a two-hour tour highlighting the Navy’s latest efforts to pull poisons out of the ground and water at and around Alameda Point.
The Navy is required by federal law to perform public outreach on its cleanup efforts, and the annual tour is one way the team in charge of making sure the Point is safe for human habitation, workers and recreation chose to fulfill that duty, according to Derek Robinson, the trim, affable head of the team managing cleanup efforts there.
The Point looms large in the minds of residents and local politicians whose most fervent hope is to see this third of the Island transformed from an expanse of cracked pavement and rotting hangars into a vibrant new segment of the community with homes, shops, office buildings and parks. But for the Navy, which shuttered bases all over the country in the 1990s including this one, the Point is one of their biggest cleanup jobs, with a cost that has so far exceeded a half billion dollars.
“We would have had to do that either way to make it safe to redevelop,” said Curtis Moss, one of eight project managers overseeing cleanup of the Point, of an effort that entails boiling chlorinated solvents out of a patch of contaminated ground using a specially laid power line capable of carrying 1.5 million kilowatt hours of power, or 1,500 megawatt hours. (One megawatt is roughly enough to power 1,000 homes.)
The tour highlighted four cleanup sites on the former Naval Air Station – a pair of landfills, a former aircraft testing and repair facility and a pier area outside Seaplane Lagoon, whose waters bore solvents and other chemicals delivered via storm drains – along with some of the whiz-bang science behind the work.
The solvent-boiling project is taking place at a site in the heart of the Point known as Operable Unit 2B, the former aircraft testing and repair facility, and it’s the third on-base pilot intended to test the viability of the technique so close to a body of water like the San Francisco Bay. Over the din of the blower for the massive cooling and condensing unit attached to the mass of flesh-colored hoses carrying the boiled and soon-to-be-vaporized solvents, Moss explained the project’s goal of pulling 90 percent of the toxics out of the 24-acre patch by the end of September.
Next up was a trip to the piers and the lagoon, from which the Navy dredged 5,256 cubic yards of contaminated sediment and removed, treated and returned 11 million gallons of water to the Bay. Robinson handed out neat squares of the canvas mesh “geotubes” used to filter water from sediment as glittering, cracked hills of it dry across the road. That project is expected to wrap in August.
The landfill sites contain traces of radium, so when we visited them, no one was allowed off the bus. Outside are intensifying patches of weeds and scrub, and what one Point project manager billed one of California’s most successful least tern colonies, the tiny birds coasting above a nesting area the state Department of Fish and Game has marked with a grid of evenly spaced bricks. Plans for the site include clinics and a columbarium for the Department of Veterans Affairs, a refuge for the terns and recreation space.
The Navy’s cleanup plan for the second of the Point’s landfills, which is still going through final approvals, has been controversial. City leaders and other Point watchers had wanted the Navy to excavate and remove radium-contaminated soil, a proposal the Navy had deemed too costly. They plan to excavate some of the soil and to cover the rest with clean soil, delivered via barge instead of by trucks, along with a barrier intended to keep squirrels and other rodents from burrowing through.
“You always have to balance what one party wants with what another party wants,” Lord said of the struggle that has ensued over cleanup and development proposals for the area.
On the Point’s principal landfill site, which once included the base’s runways, skeet range and aircraft parts storage and maintenance and is envisioned as a future open park space with a Bay Trail connection, the Navy is injecting chemicals into the ground to treat the water there; engineers are designing a cleanup plan for the soil that they plan to put in motion at the end of 2013.
As the bus inched across the sun-baked Point, George Humphreys offered a running narrative to his seatmate in the row behind me. Humphreys once chaired the citizen group charged with overseeing the Navy’s cleanup efforts here, and he has criticized their cleanup efforts as being too limited.
“They’re doing the minimum amount that they can,” Humphreys, a retired nuclear and environmental engineer, said as we stopped between landfills.
In a 2010 presentation, Robinson and others said the Navy had cleaned up 40 percent of the base and was working to clean up another 35 percent, and that it was working to assess contamination at another 25 percent of the base. On Saturday, Robinson said assessment of toxics at the base was complete, though he allowed that the Navy is still “fine-tuning” that work.
Humphrey said the Navy had originally estimated Point cleanup costs at $100 million and the city, $500 million – figures he said the Navy is still coming to terms with. The original cleanup plan for Seaplane Lagoon, he said, was $15 million; the final cost was $36 million.
Back on the bus, some tour participants questioned the Navy’s engineers about whether the soil cover will hold through a catastrophic earthquake or predicted sea level rises that could engulf the toxic ground. And one tour participant asked how “hot” the site is, radiologically speaking.
“I’d go camping on it with my kids. But there are rules,” said Jacques Lord, one of the Navy’s Point project managers, as a tech from the company working with the Navy on the cleanup waves a Geiger counter over the bus’s tires to ensure we aren’t tracking radium outside the fence barring entry to the landfill sites.
As the bus eased back to its City Hall West starting point, Robinson, a civilian Navy employee with both a chemical and civil engineering background, talked to another tour participant about the cleanup budget for the Point. He’s got $35 million for cleanup efforts this year, an amount that will drop to $12 million in 2013.
“The Department of Defense was asked to cut its budget 20 percent across the board. And this is one of the areas they were happy to cut,” Robinson said, as an intermittent stream of Porsches wove in and out of orange cones in the middle distance.
The Navy plans to hand off much of the rest of the Point to the city by the end of 2012, and Robinson said he thinks it’ll “probably” finish cleaning up the former Naval base by 2016, though groundwater monitoring there will continue for years to come.
Participants lingered at the tour’s between-landfills break on the Bay, where they took turns posing for photographs on the crushed concrete riprap that stood between the edge of the Point and the gently lapping waves of the shining, sailboat-studded Bay, downtown San Francisco looming promisingly in the distance against a surprisingly bright blue sky.
“A little breezy,” Robinson remarked to another tour participant. “What a beautiful day, though.”