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Transcript of George Humprheys’ Discussion of Contamination at Alameda Point

The following is an edited transcript of a presentation made at the Alameda Public Affairs Forum on January 24, 2009. The complete presentation is available as a DVD/CD combo; copies can be obtained by writing to the Alameda Public Affairs Forum (2422 San Antonio Ave, Alameda, CA 94501) for $15.00 (check or money order; includes shipping and handling). This segment of the January 24th 2009 Alameda Public Affairs Forum presentation can be heard as a podcast at the following internet web address:

George Humphreys

The subject of cleanup at Alameda Point is kind of complicated, or as some people would say, “hard to get your arms around.” The R.A.B. stands for Restoration Advisory Board, and it is required by the Base Realignment and Closure legislation that congress passed. And we have community members, we have institutional members, the different regulatory agencies: E.P.A. (Environmental Protection Agency) the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the City consultant, the Navy’s consultants. We meet on the first Thursday of each month.

I think first of all, to get a feeling for the contamination on the Point, you have to get a little bit about the history of Alameda Point.

The original Island of Alameda extended about to where Main Street is now on the South side and about to Webster Street on the North side. So, in the 1920’s and 30’s, that was all filled in up to about Main Street. Then after the Navy took over the Point, in 1941, the rest of Alameda Point was filled in. So there’s about 1,750 acres out there, which represents about a third of the size of the island of Alameda.

In the 1890’s, there used to be an oil refinery out there, which, on the map, would be over in the vicinity of the dark blue area on the right in the south, and that was Pacific Coast Refining (the forerunner of Chevron). And there was also a borax plant there, and that was more or less at the tip of the original island. And then, over in Oakland, there was a producer gas plant that made producer gas by gasification of coal, by blowing steam onto hot coal.

So, as a result of those operations, there was deposited in the marsh area, there, what they call a marsh crust now. It is contaminated with polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and these are coal tar chemicals. There is a marsh crust ordinance, which prohibits property owners from digging or drilling into this layer. So, this material is down about 20 feet or 25 feet from the existing grade level out there.

So then, when the land was filled in, they dredged material out of the estuary, and so these residues that had been deposited by the discharges from the oil refinery and from the coal gasification plant, were dug up from the estuary and became part of the soil that was used to fill in site 25. That’s what they call the Coast Guard Housing site, and also sites 30 and 31. Site 30 is the school site, where Island High School is, and site 31 is the Marina Village Family Housing, and where it says EDC-4 is where the Alameda Housing Collaborative is. So all of that soil was contaminated, to some extent, with these polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).

Once the Naval Air Station started operating, different wastes and spills were generated, including aviation (petroleum) fuels, chlorinated solvents (used to clean parts during maintenance operations), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) used in transformers, pesticides, ordnance wastes and radium used to paint aircraft instrument dials.

So we have what they call CERCLA (Superfund) sites, or Installation Restoration (IR) sites—there’s 35 of those sites. In addition to that, there are 24 petroleum fuel sites, which are not covered by Superfund [legislation]. And there are various Transfer Parcels. These include what they call Economic Development Conveyance Parcels, there are 20 of those; there’s 3 Public Benefit Conveyance parcels; and 6 Fed-to-Fed Transfer Parcels. So, on your map, if you see the area that’s kind of in a light cream-colored area, where the runways were, that’s the Fed-to-Fed Transfer Parcels. That, and IR Site 2, which is Fed site 2A, there—the green area. So, that area is the area that’s designated as a wildlife sanctuary and that’s where the Veterans’ Administration wants to take over to build a clinic, columbaria, hospital and so forth.

Now, the Navy’s approach is to have many contractors. Probably they have as many as 10 or 15, at least, different consultants. And sometimes they have three or four consultants on the same site. And they generate vast amounts of reports. I have my family room just about filled up with reports. Fortunately, we’ve got a new chairman now, so someone else will be getting those reports. But anyway, they’re very good at producing these reports. They are available at the so-called Repository Library, which is at City Hall West. I don’t know if you are familiar with that or not, but it used to be the Navy Headquarters, and it’s—I’m trying to see on the map here exactly where it would be—it is where you see the number 12 there, in the blue area, right above that kind of horseshoe shaped building. That’s City Hall West. Anyway, it’s only open on weekdays and during normal working hours, so if anybody is employed, they wouldn’t be able to get access to it in the evening or on weekends. They used to have all these reports in the main library, but they ran out of space to hold them, so they only have a few reports up there, the most recent reports, and the rest of them got thrown away, I guess.

Okay, I’d like briefly to talk about some of the more important sites out there:

Sites 1 and 2 you see on the northwest corner of the Point (Site 1 is in purple, and Site 2 is in green—and incidentally, part of that site is actually in the city of San Francisco; the city boundary line goes diagonally through the corner of that). Those two sites were used to dispose of all of the waste generated at Alameda Naval Air Station. Site 1 was operated between 1943 and 1956. Site 2 operated from 1956 to 1978. The Navy would like you to think that those are mainly household wastes, but includes all kinds of industrial wastes and debris, possibly ordnance wastes, asbestos, waste solvents; anything that was generated at the Point was dumped out there. In fact, waste came from Treasure Island and Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, also, and got dumped out there. So, those are two important sites. They are particularly important because of their proximity to San Francisco Bay and the wetlands area. Also, they are subject to potential liquefaction and lateral displacement during a major earthquake.

Site 25, which on the map is way over on the right, near the estuary. The Coast Guard Housing—I think it’s called “North Housing Area.” And that site has surface contamination with these polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). It also has, underneath it, a plume of ground water contamination, and that plume extends also under site 30, which is the school property, and under the Marina Village Family Housing, and also over under FISCA formerly Fleet Industrial Supply Complex Alameda (now Alameda Landing) and part of Bayport.

Site 5 is a large building (formerly used for aircraft maintenance), there, which you see sort of in the middle of the light blue area. That’s about a 20 acre-sized building, which has underneath it a plume of Dense Non-Aqueous Phase Liquids (DNAPLs). These are solvents heavier than water and sink to the bottom. And the Navy has, for the last several years, been cleaning this up by what they call six-phase soil heating (a variety of electrical resistance heating). They have driven sheet piles into the ground, and then they apply six-phase power to that to heat the soil up, to cook these materials out of the soil. There are also areas of contamination around that building, including petroleum contamination.

Two other sites that are significant are what they call Operable Units (OU) -2A and -2B. OU-2B is the blue area over to the right of the Seaplane Lagoon. OU-2B has a large plume there, and has one of the highest calculated cancer risks: something like 6 x 10-2; in other words, almost 1 chance in 15 of contracting cancer, as a result of residential (30 year) exposure to that plume. The Navy has, for the last three or four years, been doing what they call a Data Gap Investigation of that site, and have identified three areas of high concentrations of contamination. And, also, the plume extends over under the sea wall and underneath the sediment in the Seaplane Lagoon.

The Navy is looking right now—they’re about to institute Nano Zero Valent Iron (NZVI) tests. These nano particles are several hundred nonometers in size—a nanometer is 10-9 meters; so these are extremely small iron particles, coated with polyethylene glycol. And they think that this will knock the chlorine off of these chlorinated solvents. We just attended a meeting last week on this, and Federal E.P.A. was skeptical as to whether it would actually clean up some of the contaminants there, including vinyl chloride, which is sort of a breakdown product from some of these heavier solvents.

OU-2A is the location of the former oil refinery and has a large area of tarry refinery wastes TRW underneath it.

Another significant site is the Seaplane Lagoon, which is IR site 17, you see, in kind of a Kelly green, down at the bottom? And the Navy is presently, or they have been for the last few months, excavating what they call “debris piles.” These are two piles of material that were dumped along the north side of that lagoon. And some time this year, they’ll start dredging out two corners of that lagoon (the northeast and northwest corners). They plan on dredging out something like 115,000 cubic yards of material.

I asked them how much they had spent so far on the cleanup. They had spent $381 million through the end of fiscal year 2008, and they have budgeted another $42 million for this fiscal year, which would end in September. So, that totals to $423 million.

You may well ask, “how much longer will the cleanup take?” The Navy’s most recent Site Management Plan shows completion in October 2014, or five years from now. Personally, I would guess ten years, because some of the larger cleanups haven’t yet started, and some involve more experimental approaches. Once can expect some setbacks and unanticipated problems, (such as previously undiscovered areas of contamination) to arise.

Some of the things that they have cleaned up: they have cleaned up two former gas stations; they have cleaned up site 14, it’s a site marked in red that’s out along the estuary (a former fire training area contaminated with dioxins) that has been cleaned up; they have cleaned up site 15, which was a transformer storage area contaminated with PCBs; they’ve removed a pesticide storage shed; they’ve done fairly good work on cleaning up the petroleum sites; they’ve removed two water tanks that were contaminated with lead paint; they’ve done time-critical removal actions: they removed two feet of [contaminated] soil and replaced it with clean soil around buildings in the Coast Guard Housing area—but there’s still contamination that hasn’t been tested or removed that’s under the buildings, and under the roads, and so forth. For the last year, the Navy has been excavating storm drains and surrounding soil between Buildings 5 and Building 400, along the west hangar zone and extending to the seaplane lagoon. These storm drains and surrounding soil are potentially contaminated with radium dumped into drains in Building 5 and Building 400.

At site 1, they did some trenching out there, and found that about 25% of the material they dug up was contaminated with radium. The radium originated from painting instrument dials on aircraft during World War II, and thereafter. It seems to have been generally spread around out there. They remove stuff on the surface, but they don’t seem to want to go deeper than two feet. The whole area out there is pretty well contaminated with that. Incidentally, radium-227, the isotope of concern, has a 1,600-year half-life. That means the 1,600 years from now, the radioactivity levels will still be half of what they are today. There’s also a solvent plume that they plan to treat with in situ chemical oxidation. They have a contactor in place that’s supposed to dig back 200 feet from the shoreline and place that material further back inland, and then they’re going to cover it up with four feet of soil. The RAB had taken the position and the City took the position that they should dig everything up and haul it away, but that has not been persuasive—we’ve made that argument a couple of times, and also with regard to site 2.

A couple of points here, that, in thinking about this: one is that the Navy’s cleanup program is based on the City’s reuse plan as modified by Roma Associates. If the plan shows a golf course, they say “oh, we don’t have to clean this up to very high standards, because it’s just going to be used for recreational purposes.” Or, if it [the plan] shows commercial/industrial use, then they say they don’t have to clean it up as much. So, even though SunCal may be planning to build apartments or condominiums, or what have you, on top of that land, if the City’s plan shows a use that doesn’t require as much cleanup, well that’s what the Navy is cleaning up to, because they don’t have any other plan to work to.

SunCal’s plan has moved much of the residential and commercial development away from the north side (nearer the estuary) because of potential flooding problems and because this area is more susceptible to liquefaction during earthquakes. They are focusing on the area nearer the seaplane lagoon, where most of the Navy’s larger structures are located, because of better foundation conditions. However, these areas are also more heavily contaminated because that’s where the Navy’s industrial operations were carried out.

I think they’re doing a reasonably good job in the core area, which is down where most of the buildings are, where the City Hall West is and Building 5, and so forth. However, certain areas have not been, in my judgment, adequately characterized. Sites 1 and 2, despite—we’ve asked many times, but they have never actually taken samples in those landfills—they only sample around the outside. They take groundwater samples quarterly, but the monitoring wells are about 100 yards apart. They have taken like only about seven samples in this whole large area where the runways were. In the Seaplane Lagoon, they have only sampled the top few feet. So, in some areas, it’s almost as if they don’t want to find out what’s there.

With regard to the wildlife, one of the things that they’ve assumed, in doing their ecological risk assessments, is that the wildlife, whether they are looking at least terns or surf scoters, they assume that the wildlife is only there 10% of the time! I keep asking, well, won’t the wildlife move from the Seaplane Lagoon out to Site 1, Site 2, Site 24, or someplace else. Basically, it means they only have to clean it up to a level 10 times higher than it would be if they assumed that the wildlife stayed in one place all the time. But the wildlife is moving around and is visiting all these different areas that are cleaned up to this higher level. So, that’s something that I think is probably not correct.

Generally, the Navy has taken the position that they only are interested in the top two feet. For example, they removed the two feet of soil on the Coast Guard Housing Area, and they talk about cleaning up two feet of radioactively contaminated soil at Site 1 and Site 2. And this seems to go back to some precedent that EPA set back East on a site that was contaminated with mercury, where they only required the cleanup to two feet. So, this seems to be kind of a magic number for soil contamination. So, there will be restrictions placed on some of these properties that you can’t dig any holes deeper than two feet, or something like that. Which I think is probably not prudent.

Another thing that happens is they have a background contamination level, and some of the items that they look at, for example arsenic, when they do a hazards index calculation on that, they subtract out the concentration of arsenic that is in the background, so the total risk may be higher than what’s shown in the calculated risk.

This completes my summary on the contamination at Alameda Point and the status of the cleanup efforts to date.

The preceding is an edited transcript of a presentation made at the Alameda Public Affairs Forum on January 24, 2009. The complete presentation is available as a DVD/CD combo; copies can be obtained by writing to the Alameda Public Affairs Forum (2422 San Antonio Ave, Alameda, CA 94501) for $15.00 (check or money order; includes shipping and handling). This segment of the January 24th 2009 Alameda Public Affairs Forum presentation can be heard as a podcast at the following internet web address:

George Humphreys is a member of the R.A.B. (Restoration Advisory Board. He worked for 38 years as a project engineer for Kaiser Engineers in Oakland. He has worked on nuclear test-reactors and power reactors, water desalination, solid waste landfills, nuclear waste repositories and Superfund sites, including Pearl Harbor Navy Base and Fresno Sanitary Landfill. He is a registered professional engineer, in both mechanical and nuclear engineering, as well as an inactive member of the State Bar Association. He received his doctor of jurisprudence from University of San Francisco, and is a graduate of the Oak Ridge School of Reactor Technology.

The Alameda Public Affairs Forum is a continuing educational project of the Center for Global Peace and Democracy. Presentations are made in the conference rooms of the Alameda Free Library on the second Saturdays of each month from 7:00pm to 9:30pm. For more information, see the website: or call (510) 814-9592.

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