Next Steps in Navy Cleanup

File photo

The Seaplane Lagoon is one of the most polluted areas of San Francisco Bay. The Navy continues to make progress on reducing the lagoon's contamination. Above, a dredger removes some heavy material from the lagoon in 2012.

Cleanup activity at Alameda Point in 2012 started where it left off in 2011 — at the Seaplane Lagoon. The lagoon's northwest corner was the site of the second and final phase of dredging there and targeted contaminated sediment near storm drain outfalls. With dredging completed by spring, the sight of Americas Cup racing yachts arriving at their temporary dock in the lagoon seemed a harbinger of the approaching end of the Superfund era at the Point.

Just outside the Seaplane Lagoon, another dredging operation was started and finished at one of the maritime ship piers where the Cape Orlando had been docked. By November, the massive ship was back at dockside, hull lights glowing at night.

In one of the most complicated and contaminated areas east of the Seaplane Lagoon, cleanup work began at an area 30 feet below ground where a cleaning solvent used on aircraft parts had seeped into the groundwater. After driving a series of metal bars down to the contaminated area, the soil, groundwater, and solvent were heated to just below simmering by means of electricity. This turned the water and solvent into vapor, which was then vacuumed out into a filtering system through a series of pipes.

At the far end of Alameda Point on the northwest landfill, the Navy relied on chemicals, rather than heat, to do the cleanup on a small portion of the site. Dozens of hoses snaking around the site to the injection wells delivered an oxidizing mixture of neutralizing chemicals into a pocket of solvents. Without this remediation, the solvents had the potential to reach the Bay.

The year ends with a cloud of controversy over the Navy's plan for leaving drain pipes under the old Naval Air Rework Facility — Building 5. Letters from both the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) and the city call for the complete removal of any lines containing radium paint waste. The Navy ruled out a more costly alternative that would remove all the contaminated pipes. The city challenged this decision, in part, on the grounds that the Navy's cost estimates for a thorough job are inflated and have asked that they reconsider.

Also in Building 5, plans to remove above-ground radium contamination from floors, walls, and ceilings in the mezzanine area will get underway within weeks. This area is where aircraft dials and markers were painted with radium paint that provided visibility in the dark.

A final scanning investigation to detect radium, using sophisticated equipment employed in the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, found dozens of pie-sized irregular areas where radium dust had embedded in the surfaces. This project will conclude two decades of scanning and radium removal efforts in Building 5 and other buildings. Around $50 million has already been spent replacing drain lines leading to the lagoon under the surrounding tarmac, and dredging the lagoon, due to the disposal of radium paint and other chemicals down storm drains.

This year, we will see the longawaited final soil cover installed on the waste disposal site called Site 2 on the southwest corner of the wildlife refuge. It will be the largest engineering project since the Navy expanded its runways in the 1950s, with more than 200,000 cubic yards of clean soil barged in from Decker Island on the Sacramento River. Workers will seed this area with California native flowering grasses that the Restoration Advisory Board selected.

This is the controversial dump that led the US Fish & Wildlife Service to balk at accepting the land for a wildlife refuge 10 years ago. Since then, this dump has seen numerous reviews and a new plan on which the US Environmental Protection Agency, regional Water Board, and state Department of Toxic Substances Control will sign off shortly.

The year 2013 will end with the start of a similar soil covering operation on landfill on the northwest corner of Alameda Point called Site 1. Then the land on sites 1 and 2 will be safe for open space recreational activities, but will be limited to hiking trails rather than mowed playing fields in order to maintain soil-stabilizing vegetation.

Richard Bangert writes about cleanup, open space, and wildlife issues online at the Alameda Point Environmental Report.


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