VA project adds to legacy of letdowns on airfield

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 that was once slated to become city property.  The community has also lost 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.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plans for outpatient clinic, medical and benefits offices, and a national cemetery at Alameda Point. San Francisco in background.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) plans for outpatient clinic, medical and benefits offices, and a national cemetery at Alameda Point. San Francisco in background.

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, which includes the widespread application of herbicides and vegetation removal on 300 acres of pavement at the 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.  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 hospital plan never returned.  The existing fiscally unsustainable and aging Alameda Hospital was eventually handed over to the county.

VA proposal (with hospital) presented to the community on December 18, 2008.
VA proposal (with hospital) presented to the community on December 18, 2008.

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, which means that those 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 of 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.  

American Avocets at the Runway Wetland at southeastern corner of VA property. VA is considering improving this wetland area that currently has some sketchy landscaping.
American Avocets at the Runway Wetland at southeastern corner of VA property. VA is considering improving this wetland area that currently has some sketchy landscaping.

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 sterilized, killing all plant life.  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 of 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 September 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.”

Originally published in the Alameda Sun.

VA proposal (with hospital) presented to the community on the USS Hornet Museum on December 18, 2008. Rejected by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
VA proposal (with hospital) presented to the community on the USS Hornet Museum on December 18, 2008. Rejected by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
New plan, without hospital, presented to Alameda City Council on September 1, 2010. This plan was also rejected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
New plan, without hospital, presented to Alameda City Council on September 1, 2010. This plan was also rejected by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Current plan approved in 2012 after city of Alameda gave up 74 acres of Northwest Territories to move the OPC (outpatient clinic) and part of the cemetery.
Current plan approved in 2012 after city of Alameda gave up 74 acres of Northwest Territories to move the OPC (outpatient clinic) and part of the cemetery.
Map showing wetlands impacted by VA project. Runway Wetland at lower right could be upgraded and expanded as mitigation for impacts of the project.
Map showing wetlands impacted by VA project. Runway Wetland at lower right could be upgraded and expanded as mitigation for impacts of the project.

sterile-runway-png

A horned lark looks in on its nest of chicks 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.
A horned lark looks in on its nest of chicks 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.
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.
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.
Garlon 4 Ultra herbicide used by the VA is highly toxic.
Garlon 4 Ultra herbicide used by the VA is highly toxic.
The federal government, oblivious to inevitable inundation of this area by sea level rise, has no plan to transition this landscape to wetland and marsh. It will become an ecologically useless flooded expanse of pavement.
The federal government, oblivious to inevitable inundation of this area by sea level rise, has no plan to transition this landscape to wetland and marsh. It will become an ecologically useless flooded expanse of pavement.
Only those agencies and individuals who believe climate change is a hoax and support their belief with "alternative facts" find this status quo acceptable. If management was governed by science rather than dogma, this area could become coastal dune using clean dredge material.
Only those agencies and individuals who believe climate change is a hoax and support their belief with “alternative facts” find this status quo acceptable. If management was governed by science rather than dogma, this area could become coastal dune using clean dredge material.
Approximately 300 acres of the VA's undeveloped area are paved.
Approximately 300 acres of the VA’s undeveloped area are paved.

Author: richard94501

My blog is Alameda Point Environmental Report covering environmental issues from wildlife to cleanup at the former Navy base in Alameda now called Alameda Point. Articles on my blog are frequently printed in the Alameda Sun newspaper. I also host a Twitter site and a Flickr photo site. I hope you find my stories and photos of interest. Richard Bangert Alameda, California

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s