Alameda Point 2012 environmental cleanup review, and busy year ahead

Cleanup activity at Alameda Point in 2012 started where it left off in 2011 — at the Seaplane Lagoon.  The northwest corner of the lagoon was the site of the second and final phase of lagoon dredging, which targeted sediment that had been contaminated near storm drain outfalls.  With dredging completed by spring, the sight of Americas Cup racing yachts arriving at their temporary dock in the lagoon seemed to be a harbinger of the approaching end of the Superfund era at the Point.

Dredging northwest corner of Seaplane Lagoon
Dredging northwest corner of Seaplane Lagoon

Just outside the Seaplane Lagoon, another dredging operation was started and finished at one of the maritime ship piers where the Cape Orlando had been docked.  By November, the massive ship was back at dockside, hull lights glowing at night.

Dredging Pier 1 wharf area
Dredging Pier 1 wharf area

In one of the most complicated and contaminated areas to the east of the Seaplane Lagoon, cleanup work began at an area 30 feet below ground where a cleaning solvent used on aircraft parts had seeped into the groundwater.  After driving a series of metal bars down to the contaminated area, the soil, groundwater, and solvent were heated to just below simmering by means of electricity.  This turned the water and solvent into vapor, which was then vacuumed out into a filtering system through a series of pipes. 

Heat treatment and vapor extraction - OU-2B
Heat treatment and vapor extraction – OU-2B

At the far end of Alameda Point on the northwest landfill, the Navy relied on chemicals, rather than heat, to do the cleanup on a small portion of the site.  Dozens of hoses snaking around the site to the injection wells delivered an oxidizing mixture of neutralizing chemicals into a pocket of solvents.  Without this remediation, the solvents had the potential to reach the Bay.

Injecting oxidizing chemical into solvent plume - Site 1.  Navy photo.
Injecting oxidizing chemical into solvent plume – Site 1. Navy photo.

The year ends with a cloud of controversy over the Navy’s plan for leaving drain pipes under the old Naval Air Rework Facility — Building 5.  Letters from both the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) and the city call for the complete removal of any lines containing radium paint waste.  The Navy ruled out a more costly alternative that would remove all the contaminated pipes.  The city challenged this decision, in part, on the ground that the Navy’s cost estimates for a thorough job are inflated and have asked that they reconsider.

Building 5
Building 5

Also in Building 5, plans to remove above-ground radium contamination from floors, walls, and ceilings in the mezzanine area will get underway within weeks.  This area is where aircraft dials and markers were painted with radium paint that provided visibility in the dark.  A final scanning investigation to detect radium, using sophisticated equipment employed in the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, found dozens of pie-sized irregular areas where radium dust had embedded in the surfaces.  This project will conclude two decades of scanning and radium removal efforts in Building 5 and other buildings.  Around $50 million has already been spent replacing drain lines leading to the lagoon under the surrounding tarmac, and dredging the lagoon, due to the disposal of radium paint and other chemicals down storm drains.

Scanning a wall for radiological contamination.  Navy photo.
Scanning a wall for radiological contamination. Navy photo.


2013 will see the long-awaited final soil cover installed on the waste disposal site called Site 2 on the southwest corner of the wildlife refuge.  It will be the largest engineering project since the runways were expanded in the 1950s, with over 200,000 cubic yards of clean soil being barged in from Decker Island in the Sacramento River.  It will be seeded with California native flowering grasses selected by the RAB.  This is the controversial dump that led the US Fish & Wildlife Service to balk at accepting the land for a wildlife refuge ten years ago.  Since then, this dump has seen numerous reviews and a new plan that the US Environmental Protection Agency, regional Water Board, and state Department of Toxic Substances Control will be signing off on shortly.

Site 2 underground dump on southwest corner of Alameda Point.
Site 2 underground dump on southwest corner of Alameda Point.

2013 will end with commencement of a similar soil covering operation on the nearby landfill on the northwest corner of Alameda Point called Site 1.  Both landfill areas will be safe for open space recreational activities when completed, but will be limited to hiking trails rather than mowed playing fields in order to maintain soil-stabilizing vegetation. 

Northwest corner of Alameda Point where soil cover will be installed.
Northwest corner of Alameda Point where soil cover will be installed.

Cleaning up radium paint contamination at Building 5

Building 5 SU 57

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

Radiological scanning equipment being used in another building at Alameda Point.
Radiological scanning equipment being used in another building at Alameda Point.

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.

Radiological scanning equipment being used in another building at Alameda Point.
Radiological scanning equipment being used in another building at Alameda Point.

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.

Building 5 SU 43

Building 5 SU 10

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.

DSC_1496The 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.

Photo galleries: 

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.

Digitized image of normal background radiation.  The scanner looks for "hot spots" that exceed background.
Digitized image of normal background radiation. The scanner looks for “hot spots” that exceed background.

All photos are Navy photos, except for exterior photo of Building 5 Breezeway.

Related story published on the Alameda Patch.

Where Alameda Point’s cleanup is at year’s end


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The past year had some high points and low points in the cleanup process at Alameda Point.  Added delays, including a pile-driving surprise, were balanced out by steady progress.

The year saw, among other things, completion of a second Point-wide radiological survey of buildings and structures that identified two building interiors needing radium remediation, a new soil scan for radium on a section of the western runway area, replacement of a storm drain segment next to the Seaplane Lagoon, and preparation of the environmental document for the Berkeley Lab site, which will be useful whether we get the Lab or not.

Northwest Territories - Site 1 dump area, partly covered by runway

The contractor preparing to cover the old dump with rocks and soil at the northwest tip of Alameda Point delivered some embarrassing news to the Navy.  In the normal course of their duties, work-plan design testing revealed that the shape of part of the contamination did not match the official description.  You would think they could just process a work-order change.  But the Superfund law requires an additional two-year review process, which will push the completion of this open space opportunity to 2015.

At another cleanup project, the Navy drove over four dozen 30-foot steel electrodes into the ground to heat up the toxins and capture the vapor.  But before turning on the electricity, the contractor discovered they had hit a sewer line.  The project has since been idle for months awaiting a decision on how to proceed.

Seaplane Lagoon dredge dewatering pad - northwest corner

The big Seaplane Lagoon dredging project that began in January is certainly one of the most dramatic displays of cleanup.  Both the northeast and northwest corners of the lagoon were supposed to have been dredged by April and final soil disposal completed by year’s end.  But the contractor failed to meet the deadline and was let go.  A new contractor has been testing and removing existing soil, as well as doing extensive set-up over the past two months for the dredging of the northwest corner that will begin in January.

Another dredging project has just begun under the dock area next to the maritime ships.  They’re removing mud contaminated from two storm drain lines.  That project is on schedule.  It’s worth visiting the area to get a glimpse of the elaborate engineering needed to capture and clean water runoff from the mud.

Shinsei Gardens low-income housing located above ongoing groundwater cleanup

Less dramatic and seldom seen work is always ongoing.  Groundwater is monitored at cleanup sites to ensure cleanup goals are being met.  One example is the monitoring of the removal of benzene and naphthalene under Shinsei Gardens and vicinity.

Evidence of the Petroleum Program is also seldom seen, other than some white PVC pipes in the ground.  But besides the big fuel extraction projects, there is ongoing testing of pipelines and oil/water separators in order to develop a remedial plan.

Finally, and perhaps most important, getting the first, very large, no-cost land conveyance from the Navy next year appears to be on schedule.  To help make it happen, the Navy and regulators are planning on modifying cleanup goals by enacting restrictions against future ground-floor residential development near the east entrance to Alameda Point.

Originally published in the Alameda Journal.

Radium Scanning Process at Seaplane Lagoon

Radiation scanner with Seaplane Lagoon in background
Testing compartments for metals, PCBs, and DDT

Every scoop of dirt that was dredged from the Seaplane Lagoon earlier this year is first sorted into premeasured compartments.  The piles are then tested for heavy metals, PCBs, and pesticides.  But the piles cannot be tested for radium 226.

In order to test for radium, every pile has to be scooped back into a dump truck, dumped into a screening area the size of a tennis court, and graded smooth to a depth no greater than 12 inches.

Grading soil for the radiation scanner

Then an electric vehicle with a scanning rig and GPS mapping system drives back and forth over every inch at the pace of a turtle.  If any radiation is detected, it is mapped onto a computer, and then this area is scooped up and placed in a special dumpster.  This already time-consuming process was slowed even more with unexpected rains in the fall because the soil cannot be scanned for radiation when it’s wet.

There are no final numbers on how many dumpster loads have gone to a radiological disposal facility.  Most of the other soil, however, that was tested for heavy metals, PCBs, and pesticides is not even leaving Alameda Point it now meets screening standards for clean soil, and it’s being hauled out to the runway area to eventually be reused to cover the old dump known as Site 2.

Recycled soil stockpiled on Wildlife Refuge for use on Site 2 dump.

2012 – More Dredging

When the existing piles of dirt are all gone in a few weeks, it might seem like they are finally done.  But they won’t be.  In January, the second phase of dredging begins on the northwest corner of the Seaplane Lagoon.