Navy to Create New Wetlands at Point

Richard Bangert    Cranes and shipping containers at the Port of Oakland across the estuary provide a backdrop for the concrete storage bunker at Alameda Point. In the foreground is a seasonal wetland that will be excavated to a depth of three feet and the soil re-used as a foundation layer next to the bunker and elsewhere on site.

The Navy is nearing completion of plans for a cleanup area called Site 32, 60 acres that lie on the old airfield west of the Alameda Point Antiques Faire. The site requires remediation because investigators uncovered radium-226 there. The Navy mixed radium-226, a naturally occurring mineral, with paint to allow dials and markers to glow in the dark. Repeated exposure to high levels of radium can cause cancer. 

The Navy collected radium-impacted waste, such as used paint brushes from refurbishing dials and gauges, scraping solids and rags, from its dial painting shop on a regular basis and discarded them at the Site 1 underground dump adjacent to Site 32. The Navy presumes that the radium-impacted items were spread beyond the dump site when it expanded the runway there in the 1950s. 

The plan calls for re-engineering existing wetlands and expanding them by covering the entire site with three feet of clean soil. The Navy will demolish several buildings on the site, but keep the massive 5,000-square-foot concrete bunker in place. Rather than removing it, the Navy will cover the bunker with soil and plants. This will enhance the watershed for the two wetlands. The Navy will also expand the existing 10 acres of wetland to 15 acres and double the size of the current watershed. The Navy will plant native grasses and shrubs throughout Site 32’s 60 acres. 

In order to ensure that the seeds will sprout and thrive, the contractor is planning to install a temporary irrigation system. Seeded soil covers at two other remediation sites on the old airfield have struggled due to drought and unreliable rainfall, requiring re-seeding in both cases. On this project, the contractor is responsible for the success of the vegetation for 18 months, according to Cecily Sabedra, environmental coordinator for the Navy. 

With all the bad news about radioactive cleanup at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard in San Francisco, it may be reassuring to know how the Navy and its contractors conducted the cleanup process at Sites 1 and 32. Rather than minimizing health threats and falsifying data, as reported about Hunters Point, the two decades of radiological investigations at these Alameda Point sites were exhaustive. Testing was conducted by multiple contractors, including TetraTech whose findings were validated by a completely different contractor, which led to expanding the remediation area. 

Originally, the thinking was that contamination was only at the dump site. But when soil sampling and scanning revealed a few radioactive hotspots at the perimeter of the dump, a new scanning plan was implemented covering 75 acres of adjacent open land. After analyzing 283,000 scanning measurements and dozens of soil samples, the Navy and regulators determined that 60 acres needed remediation.

An example of the radioactive items discovered during scanning — discrete artifacts as they are called — turned out to be glass vials that were used to transport radium paint ingredients to the paint shop. Once the vials were emptied but not thoroughly cleaned, they would have been discarded at the Site 1 dump. 

Work at Site 32 will begin in January and be completed by the end of 2019. This will be the Navy’s third wetland expansion and enhancement at Alameda Point. The site is part of the 158-acre area along the Oakland harbor proposed for a regional park.

At the Thursday, Jan 10, Restoration Advisory Board meeting, the Navy will be making presentations on recent cleanup milestones and plans for 2019. There will also be a special presentation on the petroleum cleanup program. The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. on the second floor of City Hall West, 950 W. Mall Square. The public is invited.

Richard Bangert posts photos and stories about Alameda Point on his blog at alamedapointenviro.com.