Navy’s Cleanup Drawing Scrutiny

Richard Bangert    Tetra Tech Workers clean up at Alameda Point in this 2007 photograph.

Data in question after falsified reports from San Francisco

Recent revelations of falsified cleanup data at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco have caused many people to wonder about the integrity of cleanup at Alameda Point. Can we trust the Navy’s reports concluding that goals have been met and land is suitable for transfer to the City?

The Navy thinks we can. “To date, the Navy found no indication of data falsification at Alameda,” said Cecily Sabedra, Navy environmental coordinator for Alameda Point. 

But more importantly, the rigorous and extensive testing requirements of cleanup at Superfund sites suggest that the process itself is what the public should look to for reassurance. The data review process is exactly why a couple of employees were caught handing in fake soil samples at Hunters Point.

Groundwater cleanup is a good place to look at how the process has been working at Alameda Point, considering that is where the majority of the contamination has been. The groundwater contamination resulted from releases of jet fuel and cleaning solvent and two leaky gas stations. This cleanup has left the base riddled with groundwater sampling wells and injection wells used for injecting cleanup solutions or extracting pollutants.

When a cleaning solvent called trichloroethene (TCE), for example, is cleaned up, it is not a one-time effort and, presto, it’s gone. TCE is not actually removed from the ground, but rather broken apart into less and less harmful compounds through multiple treatments until it ends up as a harmless gas. When a groundwater sample is taken after treatment, the TCE may be gone, but there are still going to be the other compounds that are still toxic. The Navy and federal and state regulators expect to see evidence of these compounds to determine progress.

For a contractor to fake their way to the finish line would require a special lab that engineered fake water samples with a pinch of contaminants. They would also need to include varying amounts of 22 naturally occurring metals that provide data on how the treatment is reacting with the soil. It simply wouldn’t work to scoop up some water from the Seaplane Lagoon, a storm drain or a faucet and submit it as a legitimate sample.

A good example of the built-in checks and balances of groundwater cleanup is Site 6 at the hangar next to the Air Museum. Industrial cleaning solvent from a dipping tank used for cleaning aircraft parts was released into the ground. The Navy and regulators agreed that two different cleanup methods would need to be employed in two different phases.

A company called URS was hired for the first cleanup phase in 2010. URS performed its own water testing prior to beginning work to determine where and how much cleaning solution to inject to oxidize and break down the solvent. Their tests also served as a confirmation of testing in 2004 by a different contractor to determine the extent of the problem. URS drew water samples after their treatment work and sent them to an independent lab. Yet another lab was hired to perform random checks to validate those tests.

Following the first contractor’s cleanup work at Site 6, a separate contractor, SES-Tech, extracted water samples in 2012 and 2013 as part of the Navy’s Basewide Groundwater Monitoring Program. They confirmed that progress had been made, but more treatment was needed.

A new contractor for the second cleanup phase specializing in bioremediation, Multimedia Environmental Compliance Group, performed work at the site in 2014 and 2015 using bacteria to break down the remaining solvent. They performed their own testing prior to work, serving as a cross-check on previous work. 

Another safeguard to ensure that cleanup test samples aren’t fake is the Chain of Custody form. It tracks the movement of samples to the independent testing lab. Every cleanup contractor employee knows that they are signing the form under penalty of perjury, a federal crime. They attest to the fact that they took the samples from specific monitoring wells at a specific time on a specific date.

The Hunter’s Point scandal has influenced other cleanup oversight at Alameda Point. “Following the Navy’s discovery of falsification at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard,” said Sabedra, “the Navy has hired an independent contractor to supplement the oversight process for contractors performing radiological work.”

The Navy will appear before the City Council on July 24 to answer questions about work performed by TetraTech at Alameda Point, the company implicated in the Hunters Point scandal.