Navy Studies Radium-contaminated Drain Lines at Alameda Point

Building 5. W. Tower Ave. is on right.

Background

Up until passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972, it was common practice to dispose of chemicals by dumping them down sewer and storm drain lines that drained into the nearest surface water.  Many people did this in their homes.

At Alameda’s former Naval Air Station the worst legacy of this practice was in the drain lines leading out of the massive Building 5 and nearby Building 400.  Building 5 is where the radioactive paint with radium-226 was used to paint aircraft dials and markers.

2009/2010 Drain Removal Action – In 2010, the Navy completed the removal and replacement

Radium-contaminated storm drain removal - 2010. Drains deposited in hazardous waste trailers.

of thousands of feet of the most seriously contaminated lines leading to the Seaplane Lagoon.  But questions remained for Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) members about drain lines leading north to the Oakland Estuary and also the Industrial Waste Line that was installed after passage of the Clean Water Act.

Remaining drain lines – September RAB Presentation

The RAB heard a presentation at the September meeting about the Navy’s recent examination of all the remaining drain lines using cameras and sampling equipment.  The drain lines lead out of Building 5 and are part of the cleanup area known as Operating Unit-2C.  Three of the storm drains and the industrial waste line were found to have areas of elevated radium, although nothing close to the levels found in the lagoon drains that were removed last year.  Six alternatives for dealing with the problem, from no action to complete removal ($58 million), were presented.  Two hundred ninety-seven samples were collected.

Drain lines requiring remedial action - OU-2C

Industrial Waste Line Should Not Be Left in Place – The majority of the RAB favored the option that prescribed hydro-jet cleaning, limited excavation and disposal of storm drain lines, and complete removal of the Industrial Waste Line.  Concern was raised about two alternatives that allowed the Industrial Waste Line to remain in place under West Tower Ave, the main thoroughfare between the hangars, and have so-called institutional controls.  Institutional controls can have a way of being forgotten as the decades roll on, which could lead to workers being being exposed to radium during infrastructure upgrades.  The forgotten lines could also lead to unexpected expenses for the city and to the posting of alarming radiation warning signs long after everyone thought the problem had been dealt with.  Update – October 13 – Another reason to remove the old Industrial Waste Line:  The August 8, 2011 Navy feasibility report cited in this post stated, “The industrial waste line is not considered a candidate for hydro-jetting due to the deteriorated condition of the line.”  Better to remove it than have toxic residue leaking out into the water table.

Industrial Waste Line survey results (click on image to enlarge)

RAB co-chair Dale Smith said it was premature to vote on alternatives.  The regulatory agencies still have to review the report.

Nuclear Fallout Residue Also Surveyed – The Navy’s contractor also gathered data on the presence of Cesium-137 and Strontium-90.  The presence of these two radioactive isotopes in drain lines was expected due to worldwide data showing that nuclear weapons testing and nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl have caused widespread dispersal.  There are also records indicating that some observation planes that flew through nuclear fallout during nuclear weapons testing were dismantled and decontaminated at Alameda Point as part of the weapons testing studies.

The main reason for concentrations in drain lines at Alameda Point is because of all the concrete pavement that sends high volumes of water runoff into drains.  The levels of Cesium and Strontium concentrations in the investigative samples were within the range that could be expected from worldwide fallout of nuclear weapons testing.

Updated October 12, 2011, in response to inquiry from reader  –  Below is a map and nine pages of test results for Storm Drain Line G, which partly runs along Pan Am Way.   Also indicated is the Main Trunk of this storm drain, which runs from Building 5 on the left of the map to the Seaplane Lagoon on the lower part.  The three horizontal storm drain lines shown below the Main Trunk are called laterals.  Only the Main Trunk portion is singled out for remediation work.  

The likely alternative that will be chosen will not be complete removal.  Instead, it will (hopefully) be limited removal and replacement in the few areas that show elevated readings for radium.  One alternative is to not do anything, but rather leave the lines in place with “Institutional Controls,” which means a big hassle if anyone ever wants to do infrastructure work.  

The remediation goal for radium 226 is nothing greater than 1.56 pico curies per liter. It’s based on a background level of 0.56 that would be randomly found in Alameda.  This background standard was established by agreement between the Navy and US EPA in prior years.  The remediation goal set by the Navy is nothing in excess of 1.0 above background, or 1.56.  The Navy’s “1-above-background” standard is more stringent than the norm for US EPA.

In looking at the readings in the boxes and on the test result tables, there are only a few locations where radium was found to be a problem.  “MH” in the box means it is manhole that was tested.  “CB” is a catch basin.  One reason for the low readings could be because in 2009/10 when the most seriously contaminated lines – F and FF – were being replaced due to radium contamination, the Navy had Storm Drain Line G power flushed to clean it out.  The contaminated water was properly disposed of.  

Another possible reason for the low radium readings is that the point from which it leaves Building 5 (where the radium paint was once used) could have been the least used for disposing of radium paint waste.  This would correspond with the actual results of testing before and after the recent dredging operation on the northeast corner of the Seaplane Lagoon where line G ends.  Other than a few solid objects containing radium, none of the dredged material from the northeast corner required disposal at a nuclear waste facility.  The upcoming dredging of the northwest corner, however, will likely yield elevated radium in dredged sediment.

Storm drain line G w/street names

Storm Drain Line G – test results – Page 1

Storm Drain Line G – test results – Page 2

Storm Drain Line G – test results – Page 3 

Storm Drain Line G – test results – Page 4 

Storm Drain Line G – test results – Page 5

Storm Drain Line G – test results – Page 6 

Storm Drain Line G – test results – Page 7 

Storm Drain Line G – test results – Page 8 

Storm Drain Line G – test results – Page 9

Should cleanup advisory board meetings be cut back?

The Navy’s top cleanup person for Alameda Point, Derek Robinson, began the September 2011 Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) meeting by asking members to consider cutting back on the frequency of its monthly meetings.  He cited budget pressure. The meetings cost the Navy $10,000 per meeting.  The purpose of the RAB is to review, comment, and makes suggestions to the Navy and regulatory agencies regarding cleanup of toxic substances at Alameda Point, and also to serve as a vehicle for the Navy to communicate with the community.

Sampling contents of old disposal site called Site 2 on Wildlife Refuge. Cleanup plans here are the subject of controversy. (Navy photo)

Three longtime RAB members said they were open to the idea of meeting reductions.  One cited the small number of areas left for review.  Two suggested that conference calls in lieu of meeting in person would be acceptable as an alternative.  The RAB’s community co-chair Dale Smith, however, opposed any meeting reductions until work phase planning is completed on the remaining cleanup areas.  She said there is still too much going on.

The guidelines for establishing local environmental cleanup advisory groups were established in 1994.  Details on the number of members and meeting frequency were left to the local areas.  The Alameda Point RAB adopted a new set of rules on May 7, 2009, which stated that meetings would be monthly, and that schedule changes must be placed on the agenda and passed by a majority vote of RAB Community members, the Navy, City representatives, and the Regulators.  The rules were signed by the Navy, the community co-chair, and three regulators.  

No decision was made at the September meeting.  Mr. Robinson said the subject of meeting frequency would be brought up again in a few months. Continue reading “Should cleanup advisory board meetings be cut back?”

Wetlands, Trails, Natural Habitat Concept Drawings for Alameda Point

Proposed Flight Park and Wetlands

The borderless ecosystem – On September 1, 2011, Golden Gate University’s Center on Environmental Law published their proposal for a unified planning process and expansive view for open space at Alameda Point.  The central theme of their effort is that the true potential for conservation at Alameda Point lies in thinking of the area as one contiguous ecosystem of land and water.  In doing so, not only is there benefit to wildlife and the environment in general, there is also benefit to our efforts at economic development by making Alameda Point a highly desirable location with a signature identity – Flight Park.

Perimeter boardwalk (Bay Trail) through park

Flight Park is their suggested name for a unified open space system that would bring to mind larger-scale landmark open space systems like the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  Bringing together regional, state, and federal agencies to adopt and implement conservation efforts will be far more effective in the long run than waiting for, say, the VA to appropriate money for habitat conservation (not their core mission), or the city of Alameda getting enough attention to secure millions in wetlands monies. 

Moving the VA facilities – Perhaps the most controversial proposal within the Flight Park concept is moving the proposed VA facilities off of the Wildlife Refuge to a spot further east at Alameda Point.  While coming late in the process for transferring land to the VA, it is not without merit.  The Golden Gate Audubon Society has long opposed the sighting of VA buildings on the Wildlife Refuge as an intrusion into the habitat of the endangered California Least Tern.  The Flight Park designers see the VA buildings as a visual obstruction on an otherwise wild and open bay front parcel.

Boardwalk through proposed wetlands

There is good reason for the VA to work with the City of Alameda on moving their buildings, if not their columbarium, closer to the old “Main Gate” on the north side of Alameda Point.  Services will be easier to get to for veterans, and the infrastructure to their site will be less expensive.  There is still time – the VA has not spent their $17 million for this year on design, and therefore they have not requested money for the project in next year’s budget proposal.

The East Bay Regional Park District has been ready and willing to take on the management of regional park facilities at Alameda Point for over a decade.  In 2009 they set aside $6.5 million for Alameda Point shoreline restoration and the Bay Trail.

Existing wetlands on Northwest Territories

Wetlands Mitigation Bank – Professor Paul Kibel, co-director of the Center on Urban and Environmental Law and leader behind the Flight Park concept, argues that there is also funding potential in the creation of a Wetlands Mitigation Bank such as has been created in many California communities to accumulate funds for creating or restoring wetlands.  An experienced environmental lawyer, he has offered to assist the city in any way he can in setting up such a wetlands bank.  One of our first contributions would likely come from the Navy, which will owe us some wetlands due to their coming remediation plans for the Northwest Territories.  Typically, two acres of wetland must be created for each single acre removed.

Seaplane Lagoon grassland promenade with Control Tower converted to nature observation center

In Sum – The Flight Park drawings offer an inspiring look at what could be at Alameda Point.  It is a vision that merges well with recent sustainability presentations that call for diverting storm water to wetlands and marshes at Alameda Point.  Urge our city council to discuss this initiative.  It would build on Alameda’s reputation as a city dedicated to environmental sustainability.

CUEL Booklet on Flight Park at Alameda Point

More images in the Environmental Report’s Flickr gallery.

The Nesting Ospreys of Alameda Point – with video

The spring of 2011 saw the return to Alameda Point of a nesting pair of ospreys.  This pair set up their nest on the same light stand at the entrance to the Seaplane Lagoon as another osprey pair, or perhaps the same pair, had done in 2009.  Unlike 2009, this year the area is fenced off for cleanup work, making it difficult to get good photographs.

Remarkable in flight

It was a pleasure to watch the adults change shifts on the eggs and go off to catch fish.  Although they may sometimes prey on small ground dwelling animals, their diet is normally restricted to fish.  Often they could be seen heading north across the Seaplane Lagoon just inches above the water attempting to grab a fish.  What was remarkable to witness was their flying technique.  The osprey that I watched one evening was propelling itself just inches above the water for a few hundred feet, skimming the surface with its unique opposing claws ready to clutch a fish.  Up would go the wings to almost full vertical, and then come down in an arcing motion, cupping the air and thrusting it forward.

osprey hunting for fish
osprey with fish

When they returned with a small fish, they would usually perch on either the tip of an old metal post next to the nest or further west on the breakwater on a post with a horizontal arm.  After having their fill, they would share with their mate.

Unfortunately, vacation plans interrupted my photography before the chicks hatched and fledged.

While the osprey is not an endangered species, it is certainly an environmental asset and a beautiful creature to watch – so much so that many communities throughout the U.S. build perches around lakes and bays to attract ospreys during the nesting season.

Alameda should preserve nesting sites

Alameda should emulate these efforts and adopt a policy of not only permanently preserving the old light beacon stand that was used this year; we should also refurbish the other one on the east breakwater that is tipped over and hanging on by a chain.

We should make provisions for when the cleanup fencing is removed.  Perhaps a small fence at the entrance to the west breakwater to prevent deliberate or uninformed intrusions into the “nesting space.”  We could have organized viewing programs during nesting season.  One way to generate interest in the ospreys would be to install video cameras in some new poles next to each nesting platform.  A pole with a horizontal perch would be more useful to the osprey and a good way to have one camera facing into the nest and another one facing out toward the lagoon with streaming video.

To place the protection of osprey nesting sites in perspective, it is instructive to know that if the light stand used for nesting were a tree in a logging area of California, it would be illegal to cut it down.  Nesting sites are protected in our forests, and they should be protected here.  Without a proactive effort now, I fear that one day we will find that the old historic light stands have been thrown away.

The open space and wildlife resources that we have at Alameda Point are priceless.  We should make an effort to preserve them, especially when we have visitors like the ospreys.  

Click here > osprey slideshow on Flickr for more images 

     

        

Seaplane Lagoon Dredging Update

Radioactive radium waste not an issue  The massive pile of dredge mud that has been sitting between the Seaplane Lagoon and the hangars is now dry enough to be tested to determine the exact contaminant profile and hauled away. 

dredge soil awaiting testing and hauling away

The contaminant of greatest concern to community has been radium-226, the radioactive ingredient once used to make aircraft dials glow in the dark.  Testing revealed that the sediment did not contain elevated radium levels and therefore would not need to be disposed of at a special radioactive waste site.  There were several solid objects, referred to as “buttons,” that were found which contained elevated radium.  Those objects and the surrounding soil were removed for special disposal.

The piles of dredge soil neatly arranged and numbered next to the old Control Tower are waiting to be hauled away to a hazardous waste disposal site. 

Wildlife Refuge Truck Route

In addition to trucking dredge soil to a hazardous waste site, there is a large mound of asphalt that is being trucked onto the wildlife refuge and out to an area where clean soil and fill material is being stored for future use.  This asphalt is from a temporary pad that the Navy laid down in the dredge soil dewatering area.  It was covered with plastic and not contaminated, and now it is no longer needed.

PCB hotspot 

Early this year the Navy began its dredging project to remove contaminated sediment from the northeast and northwest corners of the Seaplane Lagoon. The Seaplane Lagoon ranked as one of the worst PCB sites in the Bay Area according to a regional Water Board study.  Continue reading “Seaplane Lagoon Dredging Update”

Navy Announces Cleanup Plans – Public Meeting August 31, 2011

OU-2A cleanup area - Seaplane Lagoon and USS Hornet are to the left - numbered areas are individual site #s

After years of investigation, the Navy, along with the federal and state regulators, has come up with a remediation plan for 39 acres, encompassing five sites, called Operating Unit 2A. On Wednesday, August 31, the Navy will spell out its plan for remediation and solicit comments.  The meeting will be at City Hall West at Alameda Point, 950 West Mall Square, Room 201 from 6:30 pm to 8:00 pm.

Operating Unit 2A is roughly one block away from the soccer fields on the south side of Alameda Point and one block away from the USS Hornet.  The Unit has contamination issues that date back to 1879 when the Pacific Coast Oil Works Company began operating an oil refinery near Main Street.

The main two highlights up for discussion are:

Building 410

Building 410 is where the Navy operated an aircraft paint stripping facility.  The soil was found to be clean, but toxic chemicals seeped into the groundwater.  The conclusion reached by the Navy and regulators is that no active remediation efforts need to be conducted.  Instead, they will rely on “natural attenuation,” which means to let nature take its course through dilution, dispersion, and biodegradation of the contaminants.

Building 410 - former paint stripping building

Their rationale for not undertaking a vigorous program to clean the groundwater to drinking water safety levels is that no one will ever be using it for drinking water, especially because of high salt content.  No wells are permitted and, even if a well was desired for drinking water, there is pure water at the much deeper 100-foot depth.  They also claim that vapors will not intrude into structures because it is in the second water-bearing zone and, therefore, the water zone above will act as a barrier. Continue reading “Navy Announces Cleanup Plans – Public Meeting August 31, 2011”