Confused Language Can Confound Community

Confused Language Can Confound Community


The ongoing cleanup at Alameda Point may have divided our community into three camps. Camp 1 consists of those racing to develop and build out the Point because cleanup is done and “will not cause serious public health problems.”
Camp 2 consists of those who attend regular cleanup meetings and know that cleanup will continue for several more years. 

Camp 3 — a majority — consists of those who never know quite what to believe since information is contradictory and confusing.   

Generally, I am in Camp 2. I have attended Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) meetings or served on its board for more than a dozen years and current serve as community co-chair. On July 11, however, I found myself in Camp 3, confused by the Planning Board resolution that states, “The design of the subdivision [Site A] and its improvements will not cause serious public health problems.” 

But, what constitutes “serious”? Moreover, I checked with the Navy and state regulators and they are not the source of this information. So, who is? Isn’t this language akin to the trope concluded on too many environmental reports: “no significant impact”?

Site A overlaps the area the Navy refers to as Operable Unit 2B. OU 2B is contaminated with an extensive underground plume of trichloroethylene (TCE — a solvent used to clean engines) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). According to EPA, TCE is “carcinogenic to humans.” Overall, this plume is responding to treatment, although there are a number of recalcitrant concentrations, called hot spots. Due to the size of this plume and its many hot spots even the Navy concedes it never will be entirely clean. (The cost of thoroughly cleaning a brownfield like Alameda Point is prohibitive.) 

While treatment continues —for several more years — health problems associated with vapors from the plume and hot spots concern the Navy enough that they require Land Use Controls (LUCs) and Institutional Controls (ICs). Site A controls include 1) no residences built on the ground floors of buildings, and 2) installation of vapor barriers in buildings to reduce concentrations of harmful vapors that may reach the surface (for example, after earthquakes, floods, or other unanticipated events). 

Despite Navy and state regulatory guidelines, developers recently presented building designs to city staff that indicated vapor barriers under crawl spaces rather than dedicated first floors. Happily, state regulators disagreed, and this design direction was scrapped.

Alameda Point’s history with TCE and its derivative vinyl chloride includes large amounts discarded in what was the former base’s burn pit and garbage dump — on the land north and west of the Oakland Estuary. Several years ago, the Navy declared TCE/VC remediation complete at this site. A protective barrier was laid over the excavation site and that covered with a six-foot-thick soil cap; the surface was seeded with native plants. 

Alas, at the July 9, 2016, RAB meeting, the Navy admitted that unacceptable amounts of vinyl chloride remain under the protective barrier at that site. Further treatment is necessary to ensure health of “bio-receptors” (humans, animals, birds, fish, etc).

This is far from unique. In 2013, for example, more than 1,000 Google employees were exposed to excessive levels of TCE from a former Superfund site 3 miles from its Mountain View headquarters. Workers had accidentally disabled a critical part of the ventilation system.

Alameda cannot afford to repeat Google’s experience. If you have ideas on how to bring together our community’s three camps to create greater transparency, share them with me at




Susan Galleymore is an Alameda resident who serves on the RAB.