The city’s west side of the Seaplane Lagoon at Alameda Point is mostly pavement – acres of it – with a few old buildings abutting a wetland on the federal property. The city claims its long-range plan for this area features a conversion to a wetland habitat, but their only commitment is to continue leasing the buildings to generate revenue while allowing a sea of unnecessary pavement to remain as an environmental blight.
Opportunities for implementing ecosystem enhancement, both short and long term, have yet to be explored for this area. We need to start moving in a direction now that benefits the environment by reducing climate impacts, improves the atmosphere around nearby businesses, adds to public enjoyment, and increases wildlife habitat.
Proposal for ecosystem enhancement
Short-term plan – Remove all pavement not required for commercial tenants. Recycle the pavement at the VA’s Alameda Point project site where they will be raising elevation and need base rock and fill. Once the pavement is removed and the soil exposed, native vegetation could be planted. Native vegetation will absorb CO2, produce oxygen, eliminate the heat island effect of the former pavement, add wildlife habitat, improve the aesthetic appearance of the property, and make it attractive as a hiking, jogging, and cycling destination.
Step 1 – Set aside money from lease revenue generated on the west side of the Seaplane Lagoon for pavement removal and introduction of native plant vegetation.
Step 2 – Explore recycling pavement at Alameda Point.
Step 3 – Explore grant sources for conversion of paved areas to native vegetation, i.e., state air quality board, EPA, State Lands Commission, etc.
Long-term plan –Establish an Alameda Point Wetland Mitigation Bank, which would incorporate the west Seaplane Lagoon acreage along with 50 acres on the northwest side of Alameda Point (Northwest Territories). Investment money would provide the capital for wetland creation, with money being recouped when mitigation credits are sold to developers elsewhere in the Bay watershed to offset their project’s impacts. As a general rule, a tidal wetland is worth at least as much as it would cost to create it. That’s why businesses exist that specialize in mitigation banks. In theory at least, the wetland project could be self-funding.
Step 1 – Commission a study on wetland mitigation bank formation using lease revenue from Buildings 25 and 29.
Returning part of the Seaplane Lagoon shoreline to nature is one of the biggest changes that have emerged in the planning process at Alameda Point. The design proposal for the western side of the Seaplane Lagoon echoes the major theme of the Greenspace Project of Golden Gate University’s Center on Urban Environmental Law – the interconnected ecosystem.
The draft Town Center and Waterfront Precise Plan for the Seaplane Lagoon and eastern entrance area, presented to the Planning Board on August 21, offers a number of new concepts, including moving the proposed marina from the west side of the lagoon to the east side. The waterfront plan is being refined concurrently with zoning changes, an environmental impact report, and a master infrastructure plan, which are all aimed at providing the level of detail necessary for the city to start marketing property to investors in 2014.
In reporting to the Planning Board on design plans of the city’s consultant, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), city staff stated: “Due to the vast scale of the study area and the Seaplane Lagoon as its centerpiece, the Town Center will be able to support a wide variety of unique waterfront experiences—some of which build and expand upon existing assets and activities, some of which introduce entirely new opportunities. SOM proposes the following four waterfront zones and experiences:
1. Natural environment—along the western edge of the Seaplane Lagoon with trails, docks, camping, outdoor sculpture and wetlands.
2. Promenade and recreational opportunities—along the northern edge, with early phased soccer fields, food concessions, bike and pedestrian paths, open lawn, and kayak access.
3. Urban edge—along the eastern side and portions of northern edge with marinas, docks, eating patios, overlooks, and ferry service.
4. Industrial—further south on the eastern side with maritime uses located near the MARAD ships and the USS Hornet.”
Climate adaptation grant funding needed – As currently envisioned, however, the de-paving, removal of buildings, and alteration of the western Seaplane Lagoon shoreline area is put off into the distant Phase 3 future — a decade or more from now — when presumably a surplus of infrastructure funds will allow for implementation. One option available for timelier implementation would be to begin now seeking grant funding from agencies that focus on shoreline climate change adaptation. There will be no commercial development on the western side of the lagoon, and therefore the project would become a public asset.
Lying directly to the west on the Nature Reserve is the Runway Wetland, whose habitat value would be greatly enhanced by a connection to the Seaplane Lagoon. Additionally, the draft Master Infrastructure Plan predicts a $10 million savings if the area were allowed to become tidal wetland as sea level rises.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos are copyright Richard Bangert. Permission requests appreciated before reproducing. See “About” page for contact info.
This interview with wildlife biologist Leora Feeney was done in 2008 as part of the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture’s “Your Wetlands” series.
Clickhere, or on image below, to access the podcast.
The only updates are that the Loggerhead Shrikes are no longer seen nesting on the western shoreline following cleanup work that was performed. And the Harriers have not been seen nesting at Alameda Point in recent years.
The refuge remains a unique wildlife habitat that deserves permanent protection.
Once upon a time there was talk about a national wildlife refuge at Alameda Point. It was included in the reuse plan for Naval Air Station (NAS)-Alameda that was accepted by the Department of Defense. It was added to Alameda’s General Plan. The US Fish & Wildlife Service was poised to be the owner and caretaker of the refuge.
But after talks broke down between the Navy and US Fish & Wildlife Service nearly a decade ago, the Navy arbitrarily decided to give the land to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for a clinic and columbarium. The VA is counting on the City of Alameda to give them an additional 70 acres of land early next year so that their clinic can be located further away from the nesting site of the endangered California least terns. This would bring the VA’s property to roughly 620 acres, even though they need only 110 acres.
The city should impose a condition on this land deal: Before the city changes its reuse plan footprint to accommodate the VA, the city should insist that the Navy place a conservation easement on the 511 acres that the VA does not need. A conservation easement would lay the groundwork for creation of a wildlife refuge or wildlife conservation area to be operated by another agency.
Golden Gate Audubon Society 1995 study examines economic value
The benefits of creating a wildlife refuge at Alameda Point go beyond environmental stewardship. They also include economic benefits to Alameda and the region. The Golden Gate Audubon Society (GGAS) understood the economic angle back in 1995 when they were advocating for creation of a wildlife refuge. To provide substance to their views, they commissioneda studyby Robert Hrubes and Associates that was released in March of 1995. It’s called “The Potential Economic Benefits of the Proposed Alameda National Wildlife Refuge: An Overview.” The conclusion of the 1995 study—that a wildlife refuge will complement economic development—still holds true today.
The study went on to extol the intersecting virtues of wildlife habitat protection and economic value. “While important in their own right, the benefits that would be generated by establishment of the wildlife refuge are not limited to habitat and species protection,” stated Hrubes and Associates. “[T]here are indeed potential economic benefits that could derive from a wildlife refuge/day-use recreation area located in the central Bay Area. That is, the wildlife refuge proposal is not an ‘either/or’ choice between environmental quality and economic development. Rather, it constitutes a land use that not only will take optimal advantage of the environmental attributes the site has to offer but also will generate economic activity that benefits the local region. Further, it will enhance the economic value for development of the remainder of the NAS.”
VA’s project requires further study of impacts
The current proposal for the VA to own and control the 511-acre refuge area next to their 110-acre medical clinic and columbarium makes it all but impossible for this area to become the urban wildlife oasis that it could be. The VA’s proposed project map makes this clear by wiping out the words “Wildlife Refuge” and replacing them with “VA Undeveloped Area.”
At this stage of the environmental review process, the only significant environmental requirement that has been imposed on the VA is that they provide predator management, housekeeping, and record-keeping for the California least terns during their four-and-a-half-month nesting season at Alameda Point from April to mid-August. This is because the Biological Opinion issued by the US Fish & Wildlife Service in the summer of 2012 focused only on one species – the least tern – due to its listing as an Endangered Species. It remains to be seen whether the VA and Navy will prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) as typically required for a federal project of this size and scope. The National Environmental Policy Act provides for an impact report that is similar to California’s Environmental Impact Report. If the Navy and VA perform an EIS, they will then have to look at impacts to other species (such as the burrowing owl), habitat values, climate and traffic impacts, as well as identify alternative sites for all or part of their project.
However, based on public statements from the VA about their timeline for construction, it does not appear that they have any intention of doing a full EIS, and thus their environmental commitment will be limited. This will mean that rather than adding grasslands to perimeter areas that already have pockets of grasslands between runways and taxiways in order to divert hawks and other avian predators away from nesting terns, they will keep the refuge looking as much like a fenced-in stadium parking lot as possible (like it has been for the past decade). The pretext is that it removes habitat for predators, but in this case they would be torturing the concept by making the tern nesting site so conspicuous that it will invite predation. Virtually all of the least tern predation events have been from flying predators—like the peregrine falcons that come from miles away on the other side of Alameda.
The real reasons for maintaining the industrial look are to reduce maintenance and capital costs, and to exploit the paved areas forrevenue-generating usesthat don’t require construction. They have already said they will use the area for emergency preparedness training, disaster staging, and storage of supplies.
Over 180 different species of bird have been spotted on the refuge at one time or another. Some of the wetland area can easily be expanded and linked permanently to the Bay. Grasslands could be added. Instead, what we can expect to see added are auto driving events and RV shows.
Early in 2013, the Alameda city council will play a pivotal role on whether the VA is able to permanently kill the wildlife refuge vision. The city council must vote on an amendment to its no-cost conveyance deal with the Navy in order to allow the VA project to move forward. By their action, the city will decide whether the 1996 Community Reuse Plan for Alameda Point will be amended to remove the wildlife refuge as a goal, or if it remains.
Killing the wildlife refuge is not only a bad idea for the environment. It’s a bad idea for the economy.
The 4.18-acre cleanup Site 34 in the old runway area next to the Oakland estuary looks barren from a distance. But up close there are concrete slabs and pavement, reminders of its bygone days as a bustling workshop area.
This area was once part of the division known as the Naval Air Rework Facility (NARF). Everything from sandblasting and painting, to metal working, woodworking, and scaffold maintenance went on out there. More than 40 years of activity left soil around buildings contaminated with lead, arsenic, pesticides, PCBs, and aircraft and diesel fuel. Above ground fuel storage tanks and electrical transformers contributed to the contamination.
The Navy will clean up the soil in this area next year. Their draft work plan, which will be released on July 31, was discussed during a Navy presentation at the July 2012 Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) meeting.
Based on more than 200 soil samples taken in prior years and this year, the contractor created the draft work plan. Separate groundwater samples indicate contamination from the solvent trichloroethane. No remedial action is being taken on the trichloroethane, however, because 1) vapor intrusion into residences is not a factor, as this land will become Public Trust Land on which housing is not permitted; and 2) water monitoring has shown that the chemical is not migrating toward the estuary.
The northern edge of this site is part of the early westward land extension of Alameda, which allowed trains carrying freight and passengers to get out to a point where the water was deep enough for ferry connections. More fill was later added to the area. According to the Navy’s Remedial Investigation report, “In the 1920s, most of IR Site 34 was filled with estuary dredging material during construction of the Posey Tube.”
By the time the closure of the Navy base was announced in 1993, this workshop area had 12 buildings, 7 aboveground storage tanks, 2 “generator accumulation points” (waste storage), 15 transformers, and over 7,000 feet of aviation fuel line. Between 1996 and 2000 everything except the concrete pads and pavement was removed.
Building demolitions ended shortly after Alameda Point became a Superfund site in July 1999. The Superfund program, officially called the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), does not allow for land improvements such as building demolition.
Most of the soil cleanup locations are adjacent to the exterior edges of old building slabs. Much of the lead in the soil came from sandblasting lead-based paint. Other contamination came from lubricants used for metals fabrications, and the use of oils and solvents for woodwork and metal work. In addition to removing soil next to the slabs, the contractor will dig under the slabs at the hot spots to take what is called a sidewall sample to confirm that all contaminated soil is removed. They have to keep digging as long as contamination is found. Clean soil will be brought in to the areas where soil is removed.
A strip of coastal marshland running along the Oakland Estuary on the north end of the site has no contamination. Its habitat quality, however, is marred by discarded concrete, wood, and trash. It will be up to the city to initiate wetlands restoration efforts there.
A 60-day public comment period on the work plan begins when it’s released on July 31. The work plan will be finalized in January 2013. Fieldwork is anticipated to take place January through April 2013.
Site 34, located in the Northwest Territories, is expected to be given to the City of Alameda in 2014.
The environmental remediation work plan for the Site 2 waste disposal area was finally introduced for public comment in early May after a decade on the Superfund list. During the 60-day public comment period that ended July 9, numerous agencies, groups, and individuals offered their critique of the Navy’s plans to install a suitable soil cover over the substandard soil cover that currently overlays the waste. Digging up the waste and hauling it away was ruled out in 2010 because of the $900 million price tag. Exclusionary security fencing, soil gas vents, wetlands, and geological/seismic stability due to close proximity to the Bay are issues receiving attention.
The Navy’s industrial waste dump on Alameda Point’s southwestern corner has been the subject of environmental concern since the 1980s when the Water Board ordered the dump closed. The mid-1980s were a little more than a decade after passage of the federal Clean Water Act and the emerging environmental awareness and new regulations requiring underground waste sites to be lined. The Alameda Point dump is composed of various unlined cells, or pits, where all manner of aircraft parts and maintenance chemicals and debris were dumped, along with waste material from the luminescent dial and marker painting that used radium-226.
The Navy’s work plan includes a security fence and tall PVC pipes to vent methane gas. Golden Gate University’s Center on Urban Environmental Law (CUEL) has been following open space planning at Alameda Point and offered comments on the proposed security fence and the 10-foot tall soil gas vents. With collaboration from UCLA’s Landscape Architecture Department they created two composite drawings illustrating the stigmatizing effect that a fence would have on this wild open space with the Bay and San Francisco skyline in the background. The Navy has proposed the fence, even though the newly seeded clean soil cap will be safe to walk on. Protection of the soil, gas vents, and monitoring equipment was the reason given for the fence.
The law group also secured the help of Pangea Environmental Services to investigate the necessity of the security fence and obtrusive gas vents. Pangea interviewed city employees and other personnel responsible for oversight of four closed Bay Area landfills that have been converted to open space and recreational uses: Shoreline Park in the City of Mountain View; Sunnyvale Landfill in Sunnyvale; Oyster Point Park in San Leandro; and Cesar Chavez Park in Berkeley. Only the Sunnyvale site has a fence, but the gates are open during the day and allow free access. “The interviewees all reported that they could not recall encountering any vandalism or other damage associated with public use to either monitoring wells/vapor probes, landfill cover materials or landfill gas venting systems during the periods (generally exceeding a decade) for which they had roles in managing the landfills.”
Pangea goes on to say, “[T]he proposed post-construction installation of permanent exclusionary fencing surrounding Site 2 is considered to contradict the ‘open space and recreational use’ land use restriction proposed in the RAWP (Remedial Action Work Plan), since a closed fenced area cannot be considered open space or be used for recreation. [T]here appears to be no technical basis for installation of a permanent exclusionary fence restricting public access to Site 2.”
The City of Alameda pointed to the Record of Decision for Site 2 that specifies certain land use restrictions such as “land disturbing activities,” which would prohibit digging, disturbing monitoring equipment, or building construction. Referring to the proposed fence, the city said that these restrictions “explicitly do not prohibit recreational uses.”
Site 2 (outlined in yellow on map above), comprising 110 acres, lies within the larger 549-acre parcel commonly known as the wildlife refuge in the runway area of the former Naval Air Station. The refuge is home to a nesting site for the endangered California Least Tern, which lies a few hundred yards east of Site 2. The US Fish & Wildlife Service currently manages the refuge and the tern colony. Continuing management of the refuge to protect the terns and their nesting area will mean that a fence and gates will always be necessary around the greater refuge boundaries to limit the introduction of mammals such as raccoons, opossums, skunks, and feral cats that could pose a threat to the terns during nesting season. The perimeter fence will also serve to control human access. Thus, a secondary fence within the refuge would be redundant in controlling access.
Both the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Regional Water Quality Control Board (Water Board) called on the Navy to look for alternatives to the fence. The Water Board stated, “Although protection of human health and the environment is our primary goal, we request that alternatives be evaluated for the fence line and methane gas venting so that public concerns and environmental health might more naturally coexist with the other beneficial uses that are planned for the area.”
Landfill gas venting
PVC piping will be installed to vent methane gas created by decay of organic matter. Thirty of the proposed vents will be 10 feet high. However, since the predominant waste is industrial and not organic, the amount of methane produced is minimal. And after more than 25 years, methane production would be expected to be near the end of its life. The Navy’s project manager recently said that the current methane out-gassing is so low that it wouldn’t keep a flame lit if there was a flaring system, calling into question the number of vents required and their height.
The Water Board questioned the gas vents saying, “[I]t is unclear why the methane vents need to be so high.” The EPA, Pangea, and the City of Alameda echoed this concern suggesting that the methane gas venting system could be reengineered into a lower profile system.
The Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) had similar concerns about shoreline access and the visual experience of future trail users. They also called for more specifics on the overall design, including how the shoreline is suited to withstand sea level rise impacts, and specifics about drainage and other impacts on the wetlands from the new soil cover.
Wetlands connection to Bay
When the Navy extended the size of the base over 50 years ago to create the landfill site, they installed an underground 36” metal culvert that connects the North Pond on Site 2 to San Francisco Bay. Because the aging culvert does not enter the landfill portion of the site, the Navy is not addressing the soundness of the culvert, even though they are addressing wetlands issues at the site. The Navy’s presumed argument is that culvert improvements would be a “land improvement” that is outside the scope of environmental remediation requirements.
Both the Water Board and the EPA are arguing for the Navy to address the culvert issue. The Water Board stated, “We are very concerned about the age and integrity of the culvert that is the sole source of Bay water to the tidal wetlands. It is our understanding that the aged culvert is in very poor shape and may collapse any time. The value of this culvert became painfully apparent a year ago when some driftwood or other material clogged it up and impeded all tidal flow of brackish water to the wetland. In a matter of days the tidal wetland started drying up. Should that culvert collapse, the delays in rebuilding, from getting contracts to actual physical work, could be devastating and even fatal to the wetland flora and fauna.”
The EPA said, “[T]here is no evaluation of the culvert to demonstrate that the culvert is appropriately sized or constructed to minimize the potential for future blockages, nor is there any provision for the periodic inspection and maintenance.” EPA went on to say, “Either the connection to the Bay needs to be reconstructed to reduce the potential for blockage or an obligation to periodically inspect the culvert and clear blockages needs to be included in the Operations and Maintenance plan. The details for the inspection and maintenance should be reviewed with BCDC as part of the Navy’s compliance with the substantive provisions of Bay Plan.”
Further addressing wetlands issues, the Water Board questioned, “Will there be an adequate number of wells effectively placed to monitor landfill leachate concentrations that might adversely affect the adjacent wetland species?”
The hazardous waste pits on the south end of the site come within a few dozen yards of the Bay. The two longstanding concerns about proximity to the Bay have been chemical leaching into the water table, and failure of the seawall during an earthquake along the Hayward Fault. Well monitoring over the past 16 years shows that toxic chemical leaching is not a problem. However, the EPA is questioning the stability of the seawall and the earthen berm that surrounds the landfill containment area.
The EPA said, “It should be noted that based on the presented analyses the seawall along the southern coastal margin which is founded on liquefiable hydraulic fill and coarse-grained Young Bay Mud is prone to edge failure and lateral spreading.” They go on to say, “No remedial actions are proposed in the [Work Plan] to address these issues,” and they continue by saying, “[I]f the seawall is prone to failure and lateral spreading, it is unclear how further lateral spreading will be localized and will not distort the cover and result in depressions, drainage reversals or similar effects. Please address potential edge failure on spreading on southern coastal margin.” They also point out that the soil make-up of the berm around the landfill has not been characterized, leaving another question mark about seismic stability.
The EPA mentions reinforcement options such as “cement deep soil mixing and jet-grouting,” and calls on the Navy to clarify whether they think perimeter slope failure in an earthquake is an acceptable long term risk, in lieu of underground seismic reinforcements. They also point out that the work plan does not analyze consequences of future expected sea level rise.
The Navy has until August 24 to respond to comments and incorporate changes or additions to the plan in their final draft. The regulators and the Navy will meet periodically prior to the August 24 deadline. A 30-day final review by the Navy and regulatory agencies will follow. Work on the site is scheduled to begin on October 1 and be completed by summer of 2013. Completion could be delayed if the seeding of the soil cover cannot be accomplished during the rainy season.
Below is a photo gallery of Palo Alto’s Byxbee Park, which is built over a landfill waste site at the edge of San Francisco Bay. No exclusionary fencing.
“The Navy provided a more current explanation of the future redevelopment of IR Site 2, indicating that even under Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) ownership that IR Site 2 would be a wildlife refuge.”
“[T]he purpose of the multilayer soil cover is to control specific site risk through the prevention of direct contact by either humans or ecological receptors (e.g., burrowing animals).”
January 15, 2008, Minutes from regulatory agency and Navy “Resolution Meeting” on the Feasibility Study for Site 2
In the southwestern corner of Alameda Point – on the wildlife refuge – are 30 acres of wetlands. They lie within the cleanup area known as Site 2. The wetlands themselves are not contaminated, but due to protracted cleanup efforts and studies elsewhere on the site, the entire area has been off limits since the base was closed in 1997.
In May 2012, the Navy released a draft plan for covering the old underground waste disposal area on Site 2 with clean soil and seeding it with native grasses.The plan also includes a study of the wetlands on the site. Here are some highlights from the wetlands report, and also some photos taken by a Navy contractor a few years ago during investigative work.
The wetland delineation report prepared for the Navy identified three distinct wetland and water features:
Open Water/Mudflat – Open water/mudflat is found in two large ponds, the North Pond and the South Pond.
The North Pond is connected to San Francisco Bay by a 36-inch-diameter culvert that penetrates the perimeter berm and seawall. “The culvert appears to be appropriately sized to allow full tidal exchange on a diurnal basis, as the tidal wetland drains and fills completely twice a day,” according to the report.
Of the South Pond, the report said, “Most of this pond is either shallow standing water or mudflats, with a fringe of pickleweed (Salicornia virginica) forming the transitional plant community between the mudflats and nearby uplands. Freshwater seasonal pond and transitional mudflat habitats such as this have been identified in theBaylands Ecosystem Habitat Goals Project(SFEI 2001) as rare and important habitat components.”
The Navy’s summary of the wetlands report goes on to say, “The South Pond and mudflat matrix is high-value habitat in that it offers high tide refugia for wading shorebirds, and low tide refugia for ducks and geese. Because pond water surface elevations in this area are maintained by groundwater and precipitation, they do not fluctuate on a diurnal basis as they do in the northern (tidal) pond. Since this area normally has both mudflats and open water, it is available as foraging habitat year-round. At the time of the reconnaissance survey in late October , an estimated 500 birds representing at least eight species were observed foraging in this pond and mudflat.”
Seasonal wetlands – One area on the north side of the site is considered low quality and will be covered by the soil cap. The lost wetland acreage will be replaced at other locations on the site. At the south end of the site is another seasonal wetland.
Tidal wetlands are found surrounding the North Pond that is connected to San Francisco Bay.