Navy Cleans Long-Gone Gas Stations

Richard Bangert Workers at the old gas station and car wash site on West Pacific Avenue are preparing to inject cleanup solutions into the ground. The Navy operated a gas station and car wash on the site from 1971 to 1980. The green tank on the truck contains non-potable water for on-site mixing of treatment solution.

The Navy has spent more than 15 years cleaning up contaminated groundwater underneath two former gas station sites at Alameda Point. They are still at it, but it’s not because the Navy is slow or lacking in commitment and expertise. It’s the nature of groundwater cleanup, which involves intermittent treatment efforts.

In July, the Navy’s contractor returned to the old gas station and car wash site on West Pacific Avenue at Main Street and to the old commissary gas station site at West Tower Avenue and Main Street across from Bayport. It’s the third visit to these sites to eliminate petroleum hydrocarbon contamination in groundwater, in addition to earlier removal of underground tanks, fuel lines and soil. The contaminants are located from two to 16 feet below ground surface.

The goal is to bring the property up to the public health and environmental standards required for the future commercial and residential uses previously determined by the city.

"When groundwater contamination is involved, such as at the two former gas stations, cleanups often involve multiple phases, each building upon earlier accomplishments," said Dr. Peter Russell, who has been reviewing Navy cleanup plans and preparing cleanup-related documents on behalf of, and at the direction of, the city since 1997. "As long as all imminent health and environmental risks are eliminated early on, often the most cost-effective approach to complete remediation is incremental," explained Russell. "In contrast, a massive initial remedial effort that is sure to achieve all remedial goals in one pass would likely involve over-sizing the treatment system, which is more disruptive and expensive than a phased approach."

During previous cleanup visits, the Navy used a vapor extraction system to remove the bulk of the petroleum contamination. The process involves pumping air into numerous pipes, called wells, which extend into the water-saturated zone where the contamination is. The air pressure creates vapor that is part air, part water and part petroleum. The vapor is then sucked out through another set of wells, and the petroleum vapors are captured in drums of granulated charcoal, while the water is shunted off to a separate container.

The method of blowing bubbles in mud and sucking out the air sounds unsophisticated, but it works. After running the system in 2013 and 2014 at the West Pacific Avenue gas station site, for example, the level of one contaminant, benzene, went from around 1,000 micrograms per liter down to 58, bringing the contamination low enough to allow indigenous bacteria to finish the job.

The Navy returned to these sites in July and, in this phase, they came to help natural bacteria finish up the job. Allowing bacteria to clean up petro chemicals through natural digestion is called bioremediation. To be effective and not take a century to eliminate the problem, the bulk of the chemicals need to first be reduced to concentrations that do not overwhelm the bacteria.

At both gas station sites the Navy used a special product designed to foster growth of natural bacteria in the ground, which includes a form of time-release peroxide that turns into oxygen over a period of 12 months. An oxygen environment is necessary for the bacteria to digest petroleum. The bacteria utilize the hydrocarbons (hydrogen and carbon) in the petroleum chemicals as part of their metabolic processes and convert them into carbon dioxide, water and microbial cell mass. Water samples will be taken at three, six, and nine months after the July injections to evaluate effectiveness.

"The Navy’s gas station remedial program is comparable to the private sector gas station cleanup program," said Yemia Hashimoto, engineering geologist with the San Francisco Bay Water Board. "The cleanup requirements are similar and the required timelines for project completion are similar." The Water Board is a California state agency and is the lead regulatory agency overseeing the Navy’s petroleum cleanup program.

The other type of groundwater contamination encountered at Alameda Point comes from a chlorinated solvent used in cleaning aircraft parts. Unlike lighter-than-water petroleum products, chlorinated solvents can sink through the upper water zone to a depth of 30 feet or more and complicate cleanup. But solvent cleanup still relies on a phased cleanup approach, often employing bacteria in the final phase.

Alameda resident Richard Bangert writes the online Alameda Point Environmental Report. Follow him on Twitter at