Radium-226 paint use left widespread cleanup legacy

Work ends at Building 5 where painting began

The Navy has completed the final round of inspections and cleanup of the last traces of the radioactive metal called radium-226 in Building 5 at Alameda Point.  The aircraft hangar complex is where the Navy refurbished its planes, including repainting tiny instrument dials, switches, and markers with glow-in-the-dark paint that contained radium.

Radium is a naturally-occurring element found in miniscule amounts in soil and water posing no health risk.  Its risk comes from ingesting the element regularly, such as in industrial settings.

The procedures for handling and disposing of the paint waste during the 1950s and 1960s led to costly and seemingly interminable cleanup projects once the base closed in 1997.  This affected at least five other areas at Alameda Point. Continue reading “Radium-226 paint use left widespread cleanup legacy”

Toxic groundwater to be cleaned up using bacteria

~Lactose, veggie oil to stimulate toxic-eating bacteria

Cleanup of contaminated groundwater between Alameda Point’s Seaplane Lagoon and Main Street will begin later this year, according to the Navy.  The cleanup area is directly south of the Site A residential and commercial parcel slated for groundbreaking in a few months.  It is one of the most difficult environmental cleanup areas to remedy at Alameda Point, which is why it has taken 20 years to figure out what plan to implement.  The Navy’s contractor presented the cleanup plan at the March 9, 2017 Restoration Advisory Board meeting at Alameda Point.

A cleaning solvent called trichloroethene was used in the Navy’s industrial repair and refurbishing operations in this area.  The solvent leaked into the ground to depths of 70 feet and spread around nearly 19 acres.  Industrial activities included the Aircraft Engine Test Facility in Building 360, which is the large building next to the Main Street soccer field, along with the Engine Test Cell in Building 14, and the Ship Fitting and Engine Repair Facility in Building 162. Continue reading “Toxic groundwater to be cleaned up using bacteria”

Navy presents parkland cleanup plans

The Navy will present options on possible ways to clean up 60 acres at Alameda Point slated for a regional park on Thursday night.  The draft cleanup options for Site 32 represent the culmination of 25 years of groundwater and soil studies that began before base closure was announced.  Only five acres have been flagged for cleanup, but uncertainty about what lies beneath the pavement and structures requires a conservative approach.

site-32-map-with-notations

The site lies in the northwest portion of the old airfield along the Oakland Estuary and features open grassland, seasonal wetlands, runway, a large concrete bunker and two buildings.  Input from the community and regulatory agencies on the cleanup plan will have a major impact on the design and use of the future park. Continue reading “Navy presents parkland cleanup plans”

Radium safety enhanced at Seaplane Lagoon

The City of Alameda became the new owner of the Seaplane Lagoon at Alameda Point on April 13, 2016. It came from the Navy with a new condition that exceeds normal protocols for dredging in San Francisco Bay.

As with all cleanup sites, the Navy, city and regulators agreed to what areas needed to be cleaned up in the Seaplane Lagoon. The cleanup plan approved in 2006 was based on testing the sediment throughout the 110-acre lagoon. The problem areas were confined to about 10 acres at the northeast and northwest corners of the lagoon where storm sewers dumped contaminants prior to 1970s environmental laws. The agreed upon plan said that there would be no restrictions on the lagoon when cleanup was done.

Dredging the northwest corner of the Seaplane Lagoon in February 2012.
Dredging the northwest corner of the Seaplane Lagoon in February 2012.

After cleanup was completed, two years of discussions between the Navy, state and federal regulators, and the city led to an amendment to the official cleanup decision to include a detailed management plan for any future dredging in the Seaplane Lagoon. The city led the effort to create a sediment management plan. It stipulates that all dredge sediment brought to the surface will have to be spread out six inches thick on a drying pad and scanned for radium-226 radiation at a cost borne by the city. Continue reading “Radium safety enhanced at Seaplane Lagoon”

Navy adds a wetland and grassland

The Navy’s cleanup program has not only removed toxic substances from below ground, it has dramatically improved some of the above ground environment by creating new native grassland and wetlands. January rains filled the Navy’s new seasonal wetland on the northwest shoreline corner of Alameda Point and fostered growth of newly planted native grass seed on the surrounding soil.

New Site 1 wetland on January 13, 2016, with San Francisco in background. Rows in soil with emerging growth were created during sowing of seeds. Navy photo.
New Site 1 wetland on January 13, 2016, with San Francisco in background. Rows in soil with emerging growth were created during sowing of seeds. Navy photo.

The 2.25-acre wetland lies within an approximately 37-acre shoreline cleanup area known as Site 1 at the confluence of the Oakland Estuary and San Francisco Bay. It is where the Navy buried its waste between 1943 and 1956. Most of the waste pits were covered by pavement in the mid-1950s when a new runway was added.

The approved plan for leaving the waste in place was completed in 2015 after 17 years of study by state and federal regulatory agencies. None of the studies showed any toxic leaching from the waste material into Bay waters after sitting below the water table for more than 50 years. Hence, the plan to further isolate the waste with a soil cover mirrors the remedy used at other underground dumps.

The Navy will be responsible in perpetuity if anything fails, just as with other Superfund cleanup sites at Alameda Point.

The Navy was required to create the new wetland as a mitigation measure for covering existing wetland with some of the soil cover. The secondary objective was to provide increased native plant and wildlife habitat along San Francisco Bay.

This mitigation requirement means that marginal wetlands that appeared by happenstance from runway drainage have now been replaced by a high quality engineered wetland. The new wetland holds a much larger volume of water and is situated to capture runoff from the soil cover. It is also engineered at a lower elevation than the wetlands it replaces, thereby increasing water retention and allowing for recharging as sea level rises. There is no waste material located below the new wetland.

After removing old pavement and sculpting the site, the wetland substrate was created using imported clean fill material and topsoil.  The soil was then amended with gypsum and potassium sulfate to facilitate growth of wetland plant species.

Learning a bitter lesson from a failed attempt in 2014 to grow native grasses by blowing seeds from a truck onto the soil at the nearby Site 2 cleanup area, the Navy used a different method at both sites. Known as drill seeding, the method involves cutting into the soil with a disc machine and simultaneously depositing seeds. It is followed up with a mulch cover.

Site 1 wetland in late 2015 after seeding and covering with green-colored hydromulch. Tree sections were added for birds to perch on. Navy photo.
Site 1 wetland in late 2015 after seeding and covering with green-colored hydromulch. Tree sections were added for birds to perch on. Navy photo.

Thirteen grass species were planted on the lower zone of the new wetland where longer-term saturation will occur. Another seven species were planted on the upper zone. The seeded area was then covered with mulch. The soil cover over the former dump received another eight species of native grass seed. The palette includes such grasses as chairmaker’s bulrush, seaside heliotrope, Baltic rush, white yarrow, and coyote brush, all of which produce flowers.

The Site 1 grassland and wetland is on land slated to be transferred to the city at no cost and to become part of a 147-acre regional park. Plans call for additional wild grassland and wetlands.

Site 1 soil cover after green-colored mulch was applied in 2015. Green coloring has since disappeared. Navy photo.
Site 1 soil cover after green-colored mulch was applied in 2015. Green coloring has since disappeared. Navy photo.

The Navy’s new wetland sits directly atop the original narrow landmass extending into the Bay that carried train cars to a ferry terminal at the site. Completed in 1859, this strip was called the Alameda Mole.

The Navy’s grassland and wetland work at Site 1 and Site 2 on the old airfield is the only ecological habitat creation, other than the placement of sand on the 9.6-acre least tern nesting site, since military operations ended in April of 1997.

Published in the Alameda Sun.

Additional photos and complete list of native grasses planted on Site 1.

Wetland with soil amendments added. Navy photo.
Wetland with soil amendments added. Navy photo.
Wetland after placing wood features and mulch. Navy photo.
Wetland after placing wood features and mulch. Navy photo.
Native grass seeds loaded into disc planter. Navy photo.
Native grass seeds loaded into disc planter. Navy photo.

Site 1 vegetation plant list 

Zone A (Wetland Mitigation Area) (lower)

  • Salicornia virginica – NC (pickleweed)
  • Juncus effuses (common bog rush)
  • Eleocharis macrostachya (pale spikerush)
  • Frankenia salina (alkali heath)
  • Schoenoplectus americanus (chairmaker’s bulrush)
  • Beckmannia syzigachne-NC (slough grass)
  • Bolboshoenus maritimus (alkali bulrush)
  • Heliotroppium curassavicum (seaside heliotrope)
  • Grindelia stricta (coastal gum plant)
  • Cressa truxillensis (spreading alkaliweed)
  • Juncus balticus (Baltic rush)
  • Hordeum depressum (dwarf barley)
  • Cyperus eragrostis (tall flatsedge)

Zone B (Wetland Mitigation Area) (upper)

  • Artemisia pycnocephala (coastal sagewort)
  • Achillea millefolium, White (white yarrow)
  • Festuca rubra Molate (creeping red fescue)
  • Elymus triticoides (beardless wild rye)
  • Hordeum brachyantherum (California meadow barley)
  • Distichlis spicata (salt grass)
  • Carexpraegracilis (clustered field sedge)

Greater WIC (Waste Isolation Cover)

  • Achillea millefolium, White (white yarrow)
  • Baccharis pilularis (coyote brush)
  • Bromus carinatus, Sonoma (California brome grass)
  • Elymus glaucus, Berkeley (blue wildrye)
  • Lupinus nanus (sky lupine)
  • Distichlis spicata (salt grass)
  • Trifolium ciliatum, Inoc (foothill clover)
  • Vulpia microstachys (small fescue)

Navy housing site safe to transfer

The vacated residential area known as North Housing—located between Alameda Point and Alameda Landing—has been deemed environmentally safe for transfer out of Navy hands. The approval comes after a four-year effort to clean up groundwater to drinking water standards was declared unnecessary and terminated.

Center courtyard in former Navy housing area called North Housing. Looking north/northeast.
Center courtyard in former Navy housing area called North Housing. Looking north/northeast.

The original overly cautious risk assumption in the 2007 cleanup plan—that humans might somehow ingest the salty groundwater 10 to 20 feet below the surface—is now seen as implausible. The vapor extraction system covering a six-acre area of benzene and naphthalene-contaminated groundwater was dismantled in 2014 after a new round of tests showed that there is no evidence of harmful vapors rising to the surface.

The land was originally slated for transfer to the Coast Guard. But the Coast Guard decided in 2008 that it no longer wanted the property. The Navy and the city then worked out a plan that incorporates a federal requirement for homeless accommodation and a for-profit development.

The 22.7 acres slated for auction to a private developer will be tagged with utility infrastructure costs—streets, drainage, utilities—on all of the North Housing area, except for the Housing Authority’s 13.6 acres and Habitat for Humanity’s 2.2 acres. The Housing Authority and Habitat for Humanity will be responsible for bringing new utility services from the nearest street to their housing units.

Draft map prepared by the city of Alameda showing proposed Housing Authority, Habitat for Humanity, and private developer parcels. Pending final approval. Dusty rose area going to Housing Authority, blue to Habitat for Humanity, tan to private developer. Click on map to enlarge.
Draft map prepared by the city of Alameda showing proposed Housing Authority, Habitat for Humanity, and private developer parcels. Pending final approval. Dusty rose area going to Housing Authority, blue to Habitat for Humanity, tan to private developer. Click on map to enlarge.

Mosley Avenue will be connected between Alameda Landing and North Housing with 360 feet of new roadway.

In 2013, the Navy turned off its air pump and carbon filter vacuum cleanup system to see if it made any difference in the concentrations or movement of contaminants. It didn’t.

But before the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would sign off on a permanent shutdown of the cleanup system, it wanted a new set of tests at ground level to ensure there is no risk of harmful vapors. The Navy conducted tests inside the vacant housing, in the crawl spaces, and under the parking lot and basketball courts at the former Island High School property. The negative results satisfied the EPA.

In April the Navy officially amended its original 2007 Record of Decision cleanup plan, with regulatory agency concurrence, citing new evidence. It also cited city, county, and state regulations that prohibit intrusive activities and specifically prohibit well installation in the shallow groundwater where the contamination is located. The cleanup plan amendment said that results of the evaluations of extensive data for this cleanup area “show that there is no unacceptable risk for current residential and school uses and any potential future land uses.”

The amended plan also cited new evidence that suggested the contaminants were part of what is called the Marsh Crust at around 20 feet below ground and essentially stuck there. The Marsh Crust is a layer of “hydrocarbon gunk” that Oakland Gas Light Company’s coal gasification plant discharged from about 1880 to 1910. The waste discharges went into what was then San Antonio Creek, and much of it settled on the nearby marshland where North Housing now sits.

Time lapse map showing former marshland where North Housing is now located. Source: US Geological Survey Historical Topographic Map Explorer.
Time lapse map showing former marshland where North Housing is now located. Source: US Geological Survey Historical Topographic Map Explorer.

The land was never cleaned up before being filled in for use as San Francisco Bay Aerodrome—hangars and two runways—from 1930 to 1941. The Marsh Crust extends from the Oakland Estuary to Bayport and over to central Alameda Point. A city ordinance requires a permit before digging into the Marsh Crust to ensure safe handling.

The 37-acre North Housing area lies adjacent to the new Alameda Landing residential neighborhood. The site currently contains 51 residential structures with 282 three- and four-bedroom units constructed in 1969.  With the possible exception of the two acres going to Habitat for Humanity, all of the units will be demolished to make way for new construction.

Future Housing Authority property, with new Alameda Landing houses in the background.
Future Housing Authority property, with new Alameda Landing houses in the background.

The Housing Authority will build 90 units of supportive housing that will include a community center.

It is not yet determined what Habitat for Humanity will do with its parcel. The private developer area is currently zoned for 315 units of multifamily residential housing and may exceed that number if the density bonus is applied for.

The transfer of properties is expected in 2016. The auctioning of the for-profit North Housing Navy property will follow, but no firm timeline has been announced.

Edited version of article first appearing in the Alameda Sun.

Appendix pelican graphic

Record of Decision Amendment for groundwater cleanup at OU5 – April 2015

North Housing amendment to NAS-Alameda Community Reuse Plan

Map showing two groundwater cleanup areas in OU-5.
Map showing two groundwater cleanup areas in OU-5.
Control module with pumps for groundwater cleanup system waiting to be hauled away from North Housing.
Control module with pumps for groundwater cleanup system waiting to be hauled away from North Housing.
Charcoal filter tank to remove benzene and naphthalene from groundwater vapors, waiting to be hauled away.
Charcoal filter tank to remove benzene and naphthalene from groundwater vapors, waiting to be hauled away.

North Housing

North Housing, Alameda

North Housing

Typical current condition of North Housing interiors.
Typical current condition of North Housing interiors.
Typical current condition of North Housing interiors. Photo date: November 19, 2015.
Typical current condition of North Housing interiors. Photo date: November 19, 2015.

Mosley Ave. right of way

Draft North Housing site map, with Mosley Avenue connection details. Click on map to enlarge.
Draft North Housing site map, with Mosley Avenue connection details. Click on map to enlarge.
1899 topographical map of western Alameda showing marshland. Source: US Geological Survey Historical Topographic Map Explorer.
1899 topographical map of western Alameda showing marshland. Source: US Geological Survey Historical Topographic Map Explorer.

Navy cleans long-gone gas stations

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 2 to 16 feet below ground surface.

Workers at the old gas station and car wash site on West Pacific Avenue on July 13, 2015 preparing to inject cleanup solutions into the ground. The Navy operated a gas station and car wash on the site from 1971 to 1980. Green tank on truck contains non-potable water for on-site mixing of treatment solution. Soccer field is in the background.
Workers at the old gas station and car wash site on West Pacific Avenue on July 13, 2015 preparing to inject cleanup solutions into the ground. The Navy operated a gas station and car wash on the site from 1971 to 1980. Green tank on truck contains non-potable water for on-site mixing of treatment solution. Soccer field is in the background.

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.

Air injection/extraction system operating at W. Pacific Avenue gas station site in 2013 and 2014. System extracts and captures petroleum vapors.
Air injection/extraction system operating at W. Pacific Avenue gas station site in 2013 and 2014. System extracts and captures petroleum vapors.

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.

Air injection and vapor extraction system operating at former commissary gas station site in May 2013. Charcoal tank to capture vapors is at left.
Air injection and vapor extraction system operating at former commissary gas station site in May 2013. Charcoal tank to capture vapors is at left.

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.

Originally published in the Alameda Sun.

Complete background and a detailed description of the cleanup process at the two gas station sites is in the Bioremediation Work Plan issued in July 2015.