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January 2001

Creek Hiking in Marin Can Be Hazardous
How Many Toxics Contaminate Hamilton?

By Elena Belsky

While conducting an informal survey recently on the status of Pacheco Creek, on the west side of the Hamilton Air Force Base Redevelopment area, I stumbled upon a disturbing site. Throughout my creek walk there was a distinct chemical and gasoline type odor, and being curious as to possible sources, I climbed out to get a broader view of the area. Within twenty feet of the creek bank I discovered four fifty-five gallon drums, two were labeled "Salvage Drum", the other two were unlabeled (one was turned over on its side, leaking an oily substance into the dirt), three five-gallon open containers marked "Éavoid contactÉ" (other markings were mostly rusted off), and one old power transformer-laying on its side and leaking.

Of great and immediate concern were the unlabeled drums and the old transformer of the type that used polychlorinatedbiphenyls or more commonly know as PCB's. Considered highly toxic, PCB's are a federally controlled substance, and improper handling and/or storage could result in felony violations, not to mention severe environmental and public health damage. Anything could have been in those unmarked 55 gallon containers. The storage site was completely accessible to any passers by, including curious children. There were no public safety measures in place.

I contacted the Marin County Hazardous Materials Division who took down the complaint, then referred me to the designated City of Novato stormwater person, who promised to call the appropriate emergency crews and check on the site. The next day, because of the imminent rain storm predicted, I decided to make a quick visit the Hamilton site to see if everything had been removed. Nothing significant had been done - only a sheet of clear plastic had been placed OVER the containers; nothing had been placed underneath the potentially toxic site to protect the creek from the unknown, spilled substances that were evident in the soil. (I understand from a local watchdog group, that later in the day they observed a City worker finally righting the downed barrel and the leaking power transformer. And then he reportedly opened one of the sealed, unlabeled, fifty-five gallon drums only to find a second old transformer suspended in oil! A State Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) representative was on-site, as well.)

The containers and spill site are on City of Novato property, but there was some discussion as to who actually holds the responsibility for clean up and removal. If the origin of the materials and containers are from the former military area, it could still be under the purview of Base Realignment Closure (BRAC) overseen by US Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Defense. If so, it is their responsibility to determine the disposition, handling and removal of potentially hazardous substances from the former military base property. Otherwise the City of Novato must address the situation and take responsibility as the property owners. The three agencies (DTSC, Army Corps, and Navy) involved in the clean up, remediation and base closure of Hamilton Air Force Base, were also notified of the containers, their unknown origin and current disposition, the day after the City of Novato was notified.

One week later, I decided to check on the site once again, and to my astonishment, all was in the exact same position as the previous week!

Phone calls to the local watchdog group and Sacramento ensued.

While the area impacted by the stored drums and spill site is not large, it is still potentially very dangerous to humans and the environment. At the very least, the items should be temporarily moved father away from the creek, placed upon material that can contain any leaking fluids, create a safe containment area preventing contact with humans and animals, and label the site as a hazardous area. It probably would be safer and easier just to remove everything immediately, off the premises, including any contaminated soil.

Neighbors downstream of former Hamilton Air Force Base and current Redevelopment area complain of degraded conditions in creeks, ponds, wetlands, wildlife habitat, and ultimately San Pablo Bay. It remains unclear as to how much, if any, water quality testing is being done by Marin County, the City of Novato, and military or government agencies regarding the health and possible contamination of the waterways and wildlife habitat areas. Locals who once lived and worked on the old Hamilton Air Force Base tell all who will listen of improperly disposed chemicals, non-compliant landfills, unapproved practice firing ranges, poorly stored toxic compounds within areas proposed for development or wetlands restoration. Many of these locations and their disposition seem to be either unknown, unacknowledged or unaddressed by the government.

Just discovering a few unidentified, leaking barrels on a creek hike has lead into a much larger story which will only get bigger - stay tuned.

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