On Sunday, April 19, Vice Mayor Frank Matarrese drove to the shoreline on the west side of the Seaplane Lagoon, and within minutes of arrival he was ordered to leave the area by Alameda Point security. He was not alone. Anyone visiting the area, which is designated as a future naturalized park on planning maps, was subject to the same experience.
The Navy temporarily restricted public access to the area over the last few years because of environmental cleanup, but removed its fencing in mid-March allowing the public to once again visit the waterfront.
Nanette Mocanu, the city’s Economic Development Division Manager, explained that the city immediately re-established the no public access rule because of a case of illegal dumping and evidence of car “side show” activity. “We will be installing our own fencing that will prevent car traffic to the area, except for the tenants,” said Mocanu. “There will be a pedestrian gate to allow people to walk along the waterfront area.”
An investigation of the tarmac area revealed a few tire tracks, but otherwise it was clean. Similar displays of tire tracks from “side show” activities appear prominently throughout Alameda Point. Illegal dumping has been a problem at the former Naval Air Station since its closure, concentrated mainly in abandoned housing areas, not on the tarmac.
Most visitors to the area have one destination in mind, the southern shoreline facing San Francisco Bay. They are usually there for only short periods of time. Under the city’s car restrictions, visitors arriving in cars will have to walk four tenths of a mile across a paved landscape to arrive at the Bay shoreline. Access will be limited to those with the desire and mobility to make the trek out to the shoreline vista point.
Matarrese was not pleased with the city’s plan to restrict the area. “I do think there is a better way, like opening and closing the gate at sunrise and sunset, since the guard is out there anyway,” said Matarrese. “I’d even be able to live with the stated restrictions if it meant a concerted effort, with a plan and a timeline, to build the park described in the waterfront plan adopted last year.”
The Town Center and Waterfront Precise Plan, approved by the city council in July 2014, calls for the western side of the Seaplane Lagoon to become “a park for visitors to enjoy nature and appreciate ecologically rich constructed habitat areas.” Referred to as De-Pave Park, it “combines a proactive ecological agenda with a compelling visitor experience by placing a picnic, camping and interpretive program within a large scale sustainable landscape,” states the plan. “The landscape strategy is to transform this vast paved area into a thriving ecology by removing the paving and nurturing ecological succession.”
The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS or Fisheries Service) issued a permit to the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) on February 25, 2015, for proposed in-water dock construction activities at Alameda Point that may impact resident harbor seals.
In its permit, they brushed off concerns of the Sierra Club, the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), and many residents that removal of the old dock used by harbor seals as a haul out could cause them to abandon the area.
The Fisheries Service doesn’t seem bothered that the seals might abandon the area. They suggest the harbor seals could use a nearby rocky breakwater or a beach on Yerba Buena Island about four miles away. The Fisheries Service even went as far as belittling the dock structure and location preferred by the harbor seals as being “artificial” and “manmade,” even though examples of artificial wildlife habitat enhancements are widespread, some of them sanctioned by the Fisheries Service.
The Fisheries Service stated, “NMFS does not consider building an artificial harbor seal haul-out is a good conservation measure to compensate for the loss of the old floating dock that is being used as a haul-out by 10-20 harbor seals. The floating dock proposed to be removed is a manmade structure that is bound to disappear as it deteriorates and falls apart. To build another new structure without maintenance will likely have the same issue in the near future. Therefore, NMFS considers it better conservation practice not to construct a new structure just to replace the current deteriorating artificial one.”
No one suggested that conservation measures come “without maintenance.” Some periodic maintenance would obviously be necessary.
Fisheries Service philosophy out of touch
If “manmade” artificial landscape features were poor conservation measures, then we would have to assume the Fisheries Service would not approve of fish ladders in rivers and streams to aid fish migration. Nor would they have approved of the artificial reef constructed off the coast of Texas using decommissioned and cleaned ships, and decommissioned oil rigs. A thriving marine reef habitat — through artificial means — has been the result.
At Alameda Point, the entire least tern nesting site is artificial, from the imported sand, oyster shells, shelters and fence to the entire land mass underneath it created by filling in a marsh. Likewise, the least tern nesting island in the Hayward Shoreline marsh is artificially constructed and may someday be underwater. Both of these artificial sites are successful in aiding endangered birds by replacing habitat lost due to human development and uses.
The Fisheries Service response to the comments on the impacts of the ferry maintenance facility gives the appearance of being out of touch. Instead of calling for a small mitigation measure in the form of a new haul out by the agency that is altering the ecosystem, they have shifted the burden to the harbor seals. This is backwards. It sets the baseline conditions as “tomorrow” rather than “yesterday” before modern development ruined most of the shoreline habitat in the Bay.
But there is still hope. The Alameda City Council will have an opportunity at its Tuesday, March 3 meeting to rectify the pending lease agreement with WETA that fails to include provisions for the harbor seals. And a few weeks later, BCDC will have an opportunity to ensure that its permit for the project contains harbor seal haul-out requirements.
“Demilitarized Landscapes” is a nine-minute film about three San Francisco Bay Area communities in which the military has played a major role: San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point, Alameda Point, and the Richmond waterfront. The film was featured in a special exhibition called “Above and Below: Stories From Our Changing Bay” at the Oakland Museum of California. The exhibition, which ran from August 31, 2013 to February 23, 2014, explored the impacts of humans and natural forces on San Francisco Bay over the last 6,000 years.
The film played continuously in a special display area titled “Military Landscapes – Demilitarized Landscapes” and shows the transitions being made today. The Alameda Point segment focuses on the Nature Reserve and the recovery effort for the endangered California Least Tern.
Construction of the ferry maintenance facility at Alameda Point is delayed another year. Originally scheduled to begin in August of this year, the project is on hold while the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) seeks a federal permit allowing for harassment of harbor seals during demolition and construction.
The public, beginning in January of 2014, raised concerns about the harbor seals being displaced at the project site. The Central Bay Operations and Maintenance Facility is slated for construction east of the USS Hornet where the Navy operated a recreational boating dock.
Part of the dock structure has sunk, but the main dock and remnant timbers have attracted harbor seals in recent years that manage to haul themselves up onto the wooden islands to rest. In May 2014, a female harbor seal was observed nursing a pup on the old dock and leading the pup in training exercises around the dock area.
In its permit application published in the Federal Register on September 17, 2014, the description of the type of harassment for which WETA is seeking a permit is limited to sounds emitted during demolition of the existing pilings and hammering in new ones.
The application makes only passing reference to residents having observed seals at the site. The loss of a resting site is not contemplated in the federal review, even though the Marine Mammal Protection Act lists habitat loss as a form of harassment. A haul-out resting site is considered habitat integral to the welfare of seals.
The permit is being processed as part of a federal Environmental Assessment and is being prepared by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). The NMFS is an arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that enforces the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), as well as aquatic components of the Endangered Species Act.
The permit being applied for by WETA is called an Incidental Harassment Authorization (IHA). An IHA “Level A” involves injury to a marine mammal. “Level B” involves disruption of behavioral patterns. The WETA permit is Level B.
The preliminary conclusion of NMFS is that no significant impact will occur, especially in light of the acoustical mitigation measures worked out between WETA and NMFS. The mitigation measures call for gradual start-ups to demolition and dock construction work, a sound curtain in the water, and NMFS-approved biological monitors.
Despite the fact that a regular haul-out site will be eliminated with the dock removal, NMFS concludes, “No permanent impacts to marine mammal habitat are proposed to or would occur as a result of the proposed Project.” WETA’s proposed facility “would not modify the existing habitat. Therefore, no restoration of the habitat would be necessary,” stated NMFS.
The most recent harbor seal data for the area cited by NMFS in the application is from 1998. It highlights Breakwater Island, the rocky barrier forming the south side of the Alameda Point Channel, as “the only haul-out site in the Central Bay that is accessible to seals throughout the full tidal range.”
The Alameda Point seals have been seen again in the project area in recent weeks after an absence of a few months, which corresponds with behavior predicted by NMFS. Citing harbor seal research, NMFS stated, “Haul-out sites are relatively consistent from year to year, and females have been recorded returning to their own natal haul-out when breeding.”
The public can submit comments no later than October 17, 2014. Pending review of the comments, the NMFS may impose additional mitigation measures. Comments can be sent via email to:firstname.lastname@example.org. Paper mail to: Jolie Harrison, Chief, Permits and Conservation Division, Office of Protected Resources, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1315 East-West Highway, Silver Spring, MD 20910.
WETA will also need a permit from the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which follows state rules regarding marine mammal impacts. WETA will be leasing the site from the city, and still needs to conclude a lease agreement and obtain a building permit. Demolition and dredging at the site can only occur between August 1 and November 30 due to foraging by least terns in the spring and summer and fish migration in late fall. The permit is for 2015.
The project was authorized by WETA in 2009 and has been undergoing review ever since. It will include berths for 11 ferries, a service yard and a four-story workshop and administration building. The facility would also function as an emergency operation center for passenger service in the event of an emergency.
The Navy began embedding a steel barrier along several hundred feet of the western shoreline of Alameda Point during the week of August 18. The purpose of the barrier is to contain contaminated ash and burn waste material that was bulldozed into the Bay some 60 years ago and is now overlain with silt. The area is where the Navy burned various waste materials.
The containment system is called a waste isolation barrier. It consists of 35-foot-long interlocking steel pilings that are hammered into the ground with a hydraulic vibrator suspended from a crane cable. Perpendicular steel walls behind the barrier add stability. The final elevation of the top of the waste isolation barrier will be approximately 10 feet above mean sea level.
Tests around the area were conducted in 2010, 2011, and 2012 to determine if any of the chemicals in the burn residue were entering San Francisco Bay. None were found to be entering the Bay. Nevertheless, the Burn Area’s proximity to the Bay requires that the contaminated waste either be removed or permanently isolated. Removing all of the waste from under the shoreline would have cost $40 million. The containment system costs $13 million.
The construction of the shoreline waste barrier is part of a larger Navy cleanup project on the adjacent 37 acres, called Site 1, which was once used as an underground waste disposal area. Much of the area is now covered by runway pavement that will remain in place. The entire 37 acres right up to the steel barrier will be covered with three feet of clean soil and seeded with native vegetation. A small wetland area will also be created along the shoreline.
When completed early next year, the area will be suitable for passive recreational use, including the Bay Trail.
The work can be observed from the Oakland side of the estuary at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park right next to the cranes.
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.
It’s more likely a new wetland will be created on the western shoreline of the Seaplane Lagoon at Alameda Point, thanks to lobbying efforts led by the Sierra Club.
On July 1, 2014, the Alameda City Council added language to the Alameda Point Town Center and Waterfront Specific Plan that raises the commitment to remove pavement from the western side of the Seaplane Lagoon for wetland—an area called De-Pave Park. Lobbying efforts convinced the council to include the following options to help facilitate the wetland park creation: 1) creating a wetland mitigation bank; 2) adding the area to a possible national wildlife refuge on the federal property; and 3) working with local community members who may identify funding sources for creating the passive park area.Continue reading “Wetland park plan at Seaplane Lagoon gets a boost”