A liquid solvent that is able to dissolve other substances can run, but it can’t hide from investigators, even 20 feet below ground. A toxic cleaning solvent called trichloroethane (TCE) was used to degrease metal parts in industrial operations at the Navy’s aircraft repair facility. When this solvent leaks into soil and groundwater, as it did in Building 5 at Alameda Point, the odorless vapors can cause cancer and other ill health effects to occupants of buildings above as it evaporates.
The Seaplane Lagoon’s north side will be looking like its old self in a few months. The Navy has begun dismantling the waterproof concrete-walled containment system that was used for three years for dewatering and testing of soil dredged from the Seaplane Lagoon, marking a major cleanup milestone. Prior to that dredging work, much of the lagoon’s north frontage served as a staging area for replacement of storm drain lines contaminated with radium-226.
Construction of a new and improved soil cover over a waste disposal site concluded this spring, marking another milestone. The 110-acre site on the southwest corner of Alameda Point took 10 years of haggling about potential environmental impacts before a cleanup plan was adopted in 2010. Work began in early 2013. The dome-shaped soil cover required 500,000 cubic yards of barged-in soil to complete.
At the far northwestern corner of the Point, work is about to begin on another long studied and analyzed waste disposal site. In a few months, the Navy will be installing an interlocking steel retaining wall along 200 yards of the Bay shoreline to contain contaminated burned waste material that was bulldozed into the Bay more than a half century ago. Water dye tests showed no toxics are leaching into the Bay, but members of the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) questioned whether the barrier would withstand a catastrophic earthquake. Partially covered by runway pavement, the entire 30-acre site will receive a three-foot soil cover. The work is expected to be completed in 2015. The area will be available for passive recreational use such as hiking trails when the city receives the land.
One of the longest-running and most problematic cleanup sites is at the old Naval Air Rework Facility (NARF), also known as Building 5, covering nearly one million square feet. Radium paint used for aircraft dial painting, and chemicals associated with engine repair work led to contamination that is still being remediated. The entire floor area will be scanned again for radiation in 2015, following up on at least three prior scanning surveys of walls, ceilings, pipes, and ducts. The year 2015 will also see the Navy returning to the site for a final round of groundwater cleanup treatments targeting contamination remaining after an intensive cleanup effort a decade ago.
Next door to the Bladium Sports Club on West Tower Avenue, another previously treated groundwater cleanup site will be treated again. Workers have already begun boring holes in the pavement for a network of hoses that will be used for introducing contaminant-eating bacteria into groundwater along with a bacteria food source.
On Saturday, July 12, the Navy’s annual cleanup site tour visited four of the cleanup areas. The most impressive stop was the 110-acre landfill site mentioned above. For the first time in over 15 years, members of the public were allowed to walk around and enjoy the magnificent views from the embankment that is closer to San Francisco than to city hall. The fencing is all gone, and with it the radiological warning signs. The Navy replaced an aging metal culvert that connects the site’s North Pond to San Francisco Bay with a concrete culvert.
Tour participants were able to see the area’s expanded wetland with a new tiny island. Caspian Terns started nesting on the island a few months ago, another type of milestone. “The last time Caspian Terns were seen in that area nesting was in 1999 when only one nest was detected,” said Alameda wildlife biologist and Alameda Point bird surveyor Leora Feeney. The 79-acre soil cover on the landfill will be seeded with flowering native grasses later this year. The vegetation mix was chosen by the RAB.
According to the Navy’s environmental cleanup coordinator, Derek Robinson, $513 million has been appropriated to date for Alameda Point cleanup, although some of it remains to be spent on upcoming work. His office, the Base Realignment and Closure Program, estimates another $80 million will be needed by the time remaining projects and follow-up monitoring are completed.
Later this year, the Navy is expected to transfer to the city the 33-acre North Housing site and seven-acre former Island High School site that sit next to Alameda Landing and Estuary Park, marking another milestone on the long and winding cleanup road to civilian use.
Update notes: Subsequent criticism of the Navy as to the necessity of a security fence by members of the public and regulatory agencies led to the removal of the security fence from the final work plan design. The Navy also agreed to shorten the soil gas vents to two feet, since only trace amounts of methane gas are now emitted from the landfill waste, most of which is industrial and did not produce methane in the first place. Additionally, the Navy agreed to examine the aging metal culvert that connects the North Pond of the West Wetland to San Francisco Bay. The culvert provides the water lifeline for the North Pond habitat and was at risk of collapse and being stopped up with debris. The Navy replaced the metal culvert with a concrete culvert (see photo above) and debris screen.
The middle of Building 5, in the mezzanine area, is where radium-226 luminescent paint was applied to aircraft dials and other devices from 1941 to the mid 1950s. The Navy plans to begin removing the radium contamination from the mezzanine area in December of 2012 or January of 2013.
The harmful health effects of radium were not understood in the mid-20th century. In fact, just the opposite was the case. Hundreds of products were marketed that touted the health benefits of radium, including skin creams, bath salts, and even “growth-inducing” plant fertilizers.
It’s no wonder that paint waste was dumped down storm drains in those days. That’s what happened in Building 5. It ended up in storm drains leading to the Seaplane Lagoon and the lagoon itself. By 2010 the Navy had either removed or cleaned the drains leading to the lagoon. By spring of 2012, the dredging of the Seaplane Lagoon was completed.
There remain only three areas of concern for radium contamination at Building 5 – the mezzanine painting area, some storm sewer lines under the ground floor slab, and the old industrial waste line under West Tower Ave. The Navy’s recently-proposed plan for leaving radium contaminated drain lines in place has been criticized by the city and the Restoration Advisory Board for being inadequate.
Plans for removing radium paint stains from floors, walls, and ceiling areas have received little public attention, however.
The scanning survey
The photos that accompany the Navy’s scanning survey say more about the obsolete condition of the mezzanine area than they do about radium. Most of the contaminated areas are small patches, which are marked by spray paint and photo outlines. Class 1 surveys covered 100 percent of floors and walls up to six feet. Class 2 surveys covered 50% of areas above six feet. Floors and walls were scanned with a cart-mounted device designed to eliminate human variations in scanning distances. Hard to reach areas were scanned with handheld devices.
Areas that were scanned included the paint shops, instrument shops, pathways from the instrument shops to the first floor staging areas, as well as buffer areas around those rooms and the ventilation system.
Radium 226 poses a health risk when ingested. The radiation is relatively low, but since the distance to cells within the body is effectively zero, the impact is high. And it’s effects are relentless, since it is not easily expelled from the body.
The mezzanine area is in the area also known as the Breezeway, which runs east to west between the two hangar areas of Building 5. Hopefully this lead paint contaminated architectural oddity will be torn down so that we can more readily attract businesses here and to the surrounding areas. It has an easily identifiable wooden wall on the western side, marking it as one of Alameda Point’s most prominent eyesores.
In the mid 1950s, the radium paint operation was moved across West Tower Avenue to Building 400. This building will undergo radioactive paint remediation at the same time as Building 5.
Click on any photo below to enlarge and play slideshow.
Photo sampling of survey areas within Building 5.
Scanning equipment being used in other buildings at Alameda Point.
All photos are Navy photos, except for exterior photo of Building 5 Breezeway.