Banking on Tainted Ground

The Navy balks at cleaning up its old Alameda base, but if it accepts the city's latest plan, houses may bloom there yet.

Last month when the Pentagon recommended closing the Concord Naval Weapons Station, Mayor Laura Hoffmeister was pictured in the San Francisco Chronicle sucking cake frosting off her index finger. There was good cause for her to celebrate. If Congress approves the closure, Concord hopes to oversee the development of 13,500 new homes on the site, plus schools, business parks, and open space.

But if the experience of other Bay Area cities is any indication, Concord officials should temper their excitement. Before ground is broken, they are in for a tedious process of compromise, toxic assessments, and cleanup negotiations.

At least that has been the case in Alameda, which has been itching to build on the former Alameda Naval Air Station since 1993. The base boasts 1,600 acres of developable waterfront property right in the center of the Bay Area. When the area now known as Alameda Point was chosen for closure, the community was terrified by the proposed loss of four hundred jobs that had helped sustain the island’s economy since World War II. The city immediately mobilized and began working on a redevelopment plan. It was approved in 1996, but the project is still on hold.

The Navy has surrendered only about eighty acres since it officially ceased operations at the base. The remaining 1,520 acres have been ensnared in toxic cleanup negotiations. “It has been a long process because of the environmental issues,” Alameda Mayor Beverly Johnson said of the former base, which was put on the Superfund hazardous-waste cleanup list in 1999. “We can’t do anything with the property until it’s cleaned up.”

Bound by the federal Environmental Protection Act, the Navy cannot transfer the land until it is reasonably cleaned of toxic hazards. And the sticking point in transferring the base has been agreement on what a “reasonable” cleanup would cost.

The Navy rejected the city’s 2003 transfer proposal because the city wanted $370 million more for cleanup then the Navy was willing to give. It took the city two years to regroup and submit another proposal that would only transfer about four hundred acres. The land in question was used for Navy housing, and requires little cleanup compared to the rest of the property.

The Navy has agreed to respond by June 30, and Alameda Point planners are on pins and needles as they await its decision. City officials and the project’s master developer, the Alameda Point Community Partners — a partnership of the Centex Corporation and Shea Homes — said they believe they can reach agreement with the Navy over the cost of cleaning up the four hundred acres.

If the Navy says yes, the city hopes to break ground sometime next year on 1,200 new residential units, 695,000 square feet of commercial space, a $10 million sports complex, and 134 acres of open space. If the answer is no, plans to create new housing on the base could be set back by two years, and possibly much longer.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” said Alameda’s base reuse and redevelopment manager, Debbie Potter. A Navy spokesman also was positive about the proposal. “We are looking forward to conveying the land and having development begin,” Navy base closure manager Ron Plaseied said. “I know there is a level of frustration, but wait and see the redevelopment plan they have in mind. It’s beautiful, and I think they will forget the past. Just wait.”

Alameda Point Advisory Committee chairman Lee Perez, who has worked on the reuse plan for thirteen years, is ready to see some progress. “The process has been considerably frustrating,” he said. “At first they told us our group would be around for four years, five at the most. But the toxicity problems on the base persist and the negotiations have gone on and on and on.”

Plaseied said his agency also has been frustrated by the seemingly endless details. Out of the 23 major military bases closed in California in the last fifteen years, Alameda Point has some of the most extensive contamination. Finding agreement on cleaning it has been unexpectedly difficult because of the multitude of agencies involved. Besides the Navy, stakeholders include the city of Alameda, its master developer, the US EPA, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Department of Toxic Substance Control, and the nonprofit environmental organization Arc Ecology.

“When I first became manager in 1999, I had no idea of the extent of necessary cleanup and no idea of the time it would take to reach agreement,” Plaseied said. “But the more people you have in a room, the longer it takes to reach agreement.”

The level of contamination at the base is commensurate with its importance during World War II. When war broke out in the Pacific, the Navy rushed to build hangars, housing, and airfields, and often took short cuts with construction of storm drains and other infrastructure. Once completed, the base became one of the navy’s busiest air stations, facilitating critical air support to Pacific convoys and West Coast patrol operations.

Wartime pressure and a lack of environmental oversight resulted in careless handling of toxic materials. Massive quantities of contaminants were often dumped into leaky storm drains. Gallons of toxins befouled the ground in accidental spills. Noxious materials of all sorts leached into soil and groundwater from unregulated dumpsites.

The environmental legacy includes asbestos, lead, radioactive materials, and unexploded ordnance. But according to a 2001 environmental impact report, the greatest potential for adverse health effects is from petroleum-based contaminants such as benzene and an assortment of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. At one point, there were more than a hundred underground fuel storage tanks scattered around the base and another 24 above ground. In addition, there were thirteen miles of leaky fuel lines crisscrossing the base. Petroleum-based contaminants can be found all over the base in soil, deep in the marsh crust, and in groundwater. “There was more oil spilled in Alameda Point than the Valdez dumped in Prince William Sound,” said one city official, who asked not to be named.

City officials originally lobbied to restore the base to its prewar condition. But over the years, the economic pressure to develop the land and a realization that the Navy may not be capable of a more extensive cleanup has softened their position.

The Navy has spent $200 million on cleanup to date. Other government agencies and environmental groups estimate that the cost to thoroughly clean the rest of the base exceeds $500 million. But the Navy wants to spend only $128 million more, to clean up surface soils in proposed residential areas and allow contaminated subsurface soils and groundwater to attenuate naturally. Other serious health threats in nonresidential areas would be paved over, fenced off, or otherwise restricted under a policy known as “institutional control.”

“The problem with relying on institutional controls is that thorough cleanup is substituted with what are essentially unproven strategies to protect human health,” said Arc Ecology executive director Saul Bloom. “We are still unsure what the health outcomes will be. And if they move forward with development at Alameda Point without a thorough cleanup, it might come back to bite them in the ass.”

Perez has greatly lowered his original expectations for a toxic-free base. “Our ideal would be to have all the toxicity on the base removed,” he said. “But as soon as we began to rub our noses in this project, we discovered that our ideal — which would be to have anyplace on the base safe for schools and playgrounds — and reality are much different.”

As it became clear that a complete cleanup will not happen, planners began discussing redevelopment under the rubric of the EPA’s 1996 Brownfield Program. So-called brownfield redevelopment is designed to enable the reuse of property contaminated by previous users such as military bases, chemical plants, and manufacturing facilities.

Brownfield redevelopment can help improve urban areas while reducing pressure to develop open lands outside city centers. The tradeoff is that such projects typically clean up little more than the most immediate threats to human health. The result is communities built atop or near polluted properties. Homes and schools are outfitted with special vapor barriers that prevent invasion of toxic subsurface gases. Strict deed restrictions often forbid residents to plant vegetable gardens or fruit trees, or dig down beyond a few feet.

But homebuyers in the Bay Area’s sky-high real estate market don’t seem at all bothered by the unseen potential risks associated with living on brownfields. In Alameda, the Catellus Development Corporation is building 485 homes on eighty acres that the Navy transferred to the city in 1998. The project, known as Bayport Alameda, is being built on land historically used for housing and considered relatively clean. Yet there are still contamination problems, especially with groundwater, and homeowners are restricted from digging beyond a certain depth without city permits, based upon their location in the development.

Despite these restrictions, the walled Bayport project has been very successful. The homes, a tightly packed mix of two-story bungalows, Spanish colonials, and English-style cottages, start between $750,000 and $900,000 and have been selling faster than they can be built. The first 24 homes were sold before there were even models for buyers to walk through, and some prices have since topped $1 million. The success of Bayport has made city officials and Alameda’s master developer even keener to move ahead with large-scale development, even though the jury is still out on the potential health risks of brownfield development.

Alameda Point Community Partners has invested $10 million in the project since 2001 and will likely spend another $10 million before any serious work can begin. And that’s when the real big bucks come into play. Before the first home is built, and long before the developer sees any return on investment, the company will have poured more than $100 million into preparing the property.

“We are approaching this project with the knowledge that all of the existing infrastructure will have to be replaced,” Community Partners general manager Aidan Barry said. “The electric and gas lines, storm drains, water supply, sewage lines, roadways — everything will be brand-new.”

But if the city’s most recent proposal falls through, Barry said his firm will have to reconsider whether its involvement still makes financial sense. City officials are especially concerned that if the company withdraws from the project, Alameda will have to search for a new master developer, which could delay development another two years.

“Essentially we would be starting from scratch,” said Stephen Proud, the city’s project manager for Alameda Point. “And if that happens, the project gets a little stigma attached and any potential new developers are going to look at it with a tougher eye.”

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