Changing stories, ballooning costs cloud VA Project

Richard Bangert -- PFAS cleanup area is illustrated by the arrow next to the future location of the VA health clinic in relation to the temporary location for the monthly Antiques Faire.

Changing stories, ballooning costs cloud VA Project

PFAS chemical contamination is the latest delay

Every couple of years there is a new story from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) on why there are delays in building the veterans facilities at Alameda Point. Meanwhile, the costs have skyrocketed from $208 million to $395 million.

Two new stories emerged this summer, just as the VA is requesting another $128 million in the 2023 federal budget for the Alameda Point project.

Sean Ryan, the spokesperson for Representative Barbara Lee’s office in Washington, D.C. offered an explanation for the delay. “All the construction funding [needs to be] in place when the construction contract is bid, increasing the likelihood that a firm will pick up the project. This is a common practice for federal infrastructure projects,” said Ryan. But for the past decade, this has not been the case for the Alameda Point project. Funding was periodically appropriated by Congress, and with that funding the VA provided ever-changing direct assurances to the City that work would commence soon.

The VA tells a different story for the current delay, claiming they cannot begin any work until the Navy completes cleaning up a fire-suppression chemical (PFAS) that was used in training Navy firefighters near the VA site. “The U.S. Navy is conducting additional testing to determine the extent of the PFAS,” said Armenthis Lester, Chief Communications Manager for the VA Sierra Pacific Network. “We will review the results with the U.S. Navy and regulatory officials, then work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to inform the VA’s path forward on the site.”

In addition to the completed field testing, the Navy is going to perform laboratory pilot testing of a new treatment method for PFAS, which will take at least a year. The other alternative is to simply dig up the affected areas and haul the soil to a hazardous waste disposal site.

The continuing uncertainty of the fire suppressant cleanup on city property affects the VA’s infrastructure work because they have to install a 36-inch diameter underground storm drainpipe directly through the 14-acre PFAS-contaminated area to the shoreline.

This cleanup, however, has no bearing on whether the VA commences work on installing updated utility infrastructure on three city streets leading to the VA site, as agreed to in exchange for the city giving the VA extra land.

These stories follow a stream of other stories dating back to 2009, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service blocked the entire original project, which included both an out-patient clinic and a two-story in-patient hospital. Back then, the agency feared that the buildings were too close to the nesting site of the endangered California Least Terns, even though they were located more than one-third of a mile, or six football fields, away. This is the same distance to the businesses on Monarch Street. The hospital was, therefore, scrapped, and the clinic was moved further away after the city agreed to give land to the VA.

In 2015, the VA was finally poised to begin work, just as Congress mandated that the VA turn over large construction projects to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in order to minimize cost overruns.

“When the Army Corps of Engineers took over in 2017, they found that there were geotechnical issues the VA had not included when they made their first plans,” said Ryan. This caused a delay as the Corps made corrections.

In late 2018, with geotechnical issues resolved, VA officials appeared before the Alameda City Council during a special presentation and said that they would be ready to commence work in 2019. But 2019 came and went without any work.

The next year, the VA was telling the city that work would begin in October 2020, according to reporting by Sarah Phelan in Alameda Magazine (“VA Columbarium Makes Progress at the Point,” March 4, 2020). “They are looking to award contract to commence construction of offsite work by October 2020, and complete offsite utilities by December 2021,” said Community Development director Debbie Potter. Offsite work refers to work on city streets.

The VA first identified a pressing local need for new healthcare facilities and a cemetery in 2004 when they told the Navy they wanted the Alameda Point property. Despite the involvement of the Defense Department, the VA, Congress, four presidential administrations, and the city, new facilities for veterans are still in limbo.

Contributing writer Richard Bangert posts stories and photos about environmental issues and wildlife on his blog Alameda Point Environmental Report