VA Project Leaves Legacy of Letdowns

Richard Bangert Flowers like these once thrived on the Alameda Naval Air Station runway area near St. George Spirits on Monarch Street before vegetation removal was done at the direction of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

 

A legacy of disappointment continues on the aircraft runway area at Alameda Point. In the nearly 20 years since the Navy ended operations there, the community has lost 74 acres of open space. This was once slated to become city property, the possibility for a 550-acre national wildlife refuge and a state-of-the-art community hospital to be run jointly with Alameda Healthcare District to serve veterans and non-veterans. 

There is still no groundbreaking scheduled for the veterans’ clinic and columbarium. 

The only recent expenditures on the 624 acres of federal property, now owned by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), have been to fund landscaping over an underground dump, and the management of the endangered least terns that nest on 10 acres. This effort includes the widespread application of herbicides and vegetation removal on 300 acres of pavement under direction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

Mitigating the loss of wetlands appears to be the only planning underway. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service forced the removal of the community hospital from the VA’s plans over concerns about proximity to the least terns’ nesting area. The hospital plan never returned, even after the city gave up 74 acres to allow the remaining outpatient clinic and office building to move further away from the bird nesting area. The existing fiscally unsustainable and aging Alameda Hospital eventually handed over to the county.  

The VA received $17 million from Congress in 2011 to be used for planning its project and to construct infrastructure improvements on city property leading to federal property. The VA has spent $4 million on planning, but the remaining $13 million has not been spent on the promised infrastructure on city property. According to a source who spoke on condition of anonymity, the funds were temporarily diverted to cover cost overruns at other VA projects, which created a delay at Alameda Point.

The cost for the Alameda Point project has risen more than $31 million since 2011, making the current cost projection $240 million. 

The VA project will impact 11.95 acres of wetlands scattered around the site. Early planning in 2015 contemplated mitigating that loss by upgrading and expanding an existing wetland at the southeast corner of the VA’s property adjacent to city property. 

Emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request showed that the VA’s contractor, HDR Inc., received advice from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015 for the on-site wetland plan, which included habitat improvements to attract more birds and better integrated hydrology. 

By February 2016, however, the VA had abandoned the on-site mitigation idea, and instead sought to purchase credits in a wetland mitigation bank. The funds would have been spent somewhere else on San Francisco Bay. Letters of protest from the Sierra Club, an open-space committee, and an individual led the VA to withdraw its permit application. 

The VA is now, again, discussing an on-site wetland mitigation plan. But all the proposed plans in a recent FOIA request have been redacted (blacked out) or entire pages left blank because “it would interfere with frank discussions” and potentially “create confusion” among the public if the plan options and rationales were revealed.  

Today, the VA’s vegetation removal and herbicide program on behalf of the least terns has been expanded beyond the roughly 300 acres of pavement it keeps ecologically sterilized. Responsibilities now include the Navy’s weed-plagued soil cover on the old dump next to the wetland on the southwest corner of Alameda Point. The 60-acre soil cover upon which the VA is using herbicide is specially designed to drain into two wetland ponds, one of which is connected to San Francisco Bay.  

Email exchanges obtained under FOIA reveal that the VA’s contractor sprayed the herbicide Garlon 4 Ultra in July 2016. An evaluation comparing Roundup and Garlon 4 Ultra by the Marin Water District concluded that it is inherently more toxic than Roundup, “has toxic degradation products,” “has high water contamination rates,” and “is particularly toxic to aquatic life.” An East Bay Regional Park District reference document lists Garlon 4 Ultra as highly toxic and a potential groundwater contaminant.

The veterans project was supposed to have been completed by now, well ahead of the end of VA leases for existing facilities in 2018. Comments in the FOIA emails did not offer encouragement as to when veterans will enjoy the new services. A Sept. 14, 2016, email from Thomas A. Matsuzaki, deputy chief of police for the VA — who is inexplicably attending wetland planning meetings — said, in part, “At the rate it’s going, I will probably be retired before the foundations are even laid out there.” 

In reply to this comment, Larry Janes, Capital Asset Manager for the VA, said, “On these major construction projects, especially when they are associated with land acquisition and endangered species, it can take a couple of decades to bring it to fruition.”

 

Richard Bangert A horned lark stands hidden among vegetation on the Alameda Point runway tarmac in 2014. The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service tries to eliminate vegetation like this on some 300 acres of pavement outside the 10-acre nesting compound for least terns. The thought is to reduce habitat for predators even though horned larks and other small birds pose no threat to the terns.