Coastal Post Online

June 2001

Government Obstruction And Intimidation Hide Toxic Dangers At Hamilton

By Louis Nuyens

The first thing one notices, when walking on Hamilton Air Force Base (HAFB), is that one cannot see obvious signs of toxic hazards.

Military and other government agencies are unified in asserting that testing is being done and that all resultant health risk estimates are well within acceptable ranges.

However, the public remains unconvinced.

Environmentalists, and others concerned with possible human health hazards, are making observations that may run counter to agency claims. And recent actions by those agencies, including 'non-answers' to direct questions, obstruction of access to public information, and blatant intimidation of those seeking it, have exacerbated concerns.

Meanwhile, the military agencies involved are rushing forward with transfer of various parcels to the City of Novato and the Hamilton developers. As currently scheduled, these transfers would take place long before complete site analysis is possible. Some believe these agencies would like to unburden themselves of Hamilton in order to avoid potentially staggering clean-up costs.

Concerns and Observations

In the Hamilton subdivision and school communities, concerns are being raised over groundwater, surface water and soil contamination, and construction and demolition practices. All of these are seen as having the potential to adversely impact residents' and school children's health and welfare.

Mothers whose children attend two of the three schools in the Capehart housing area have begun to come forward with stories of medical problems with their children, and those of other classmates, which might be related to toxics on HAFB. These reports indicate the following: that within the last three months, children have been experiencing multiple nose bleeds during a single week; children and at least one parent have experienced 'unusual' headaches; and at least two children have experienced breathing problems that sent them to the hospital. In one incident, a child was unable to feel her feet upon arriving home after school, a possible symptom of toxicity related to some chemicals.

Recent activities on the Capehart housing complex next to the three existing school sites have included demolition of small structures, removal of old materials such as asbestos, and pest-control fumigation of buildings. Emerging health concerns being related by parents, may or may not be related to Hamilton activities, but until adequate investigation is performed, and ready access to meaningful information is provided to the community, the concerns will remain.

Interestingly, at a recent public meeting, Navy consultants discussing their Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) for the Navy's MTBE plume identified the proposed Novato Charter School (NCS) site as "outside the impact area." HHRA drawings show the plume stopping in a straight line along the NCS property border. When questioned by the audience, the Navy consultants admitted that they hadn't actually tested the site itself, and had tested only the parcels surrounding it.

One NCS parent, who has begun to seek information about health conditions of former residents of the site, reports being told that, a number of years ago, 4 to 6 families left Hamilton's Lantham Village due to "severe" thyroid problems.

Human health risk assessments at the NCS site will not be performed until after the school has been moved there.

Obstruction and Intimidation

When researching health and environmental concerns, citizen investigators and the general public have been experiencing incidents of governmental interference, misdirection, and outright obstruction. The same investigators have also been subjected to various forms of threatening behavior and intimidation. A substantially limited set of those instances follows.

Tracy Karg, who has two children at Novato Charter School, was physically pushed out of the NCS offices by an employee of the school when Karg sought to look at public documents. Following the incident, Karg filed a report with the Novato Police Department (NPD).

Shortly after talking with a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, Karg found all four tires punctured on two cars in her driveway, with up to eight punctures per tire, apparently made with an icepick. Again, she filed a NPD report.

After reporting a possible health hazard, Sue Lattanzio of Friends of Novato Creek received an email from Army Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Coordinator representative, Ed Keller, threatening to have her arrested by the NPD for criminal trespass. The Army property is not posted or fenced-there is no way of telling where the property lines for City of Novato begins or ends, in relation to the Army's property. This would also restrict Lattanzio from accessing a mandatory public library of relevant information, located on the site.

Elena Belsky, Marin Investigator for San Francisco BayKeeper, reports having been refused access to City of Novato public files, and that City of Novato employees attempted to detain her with the intent of removing a public document from her possession.

The County of Marin allegedly told Belsky that a public file was not available for viewing due the "draft" nature of a couple of documents contained therein, asserting that they needed to check with the author, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, prior to making the file open for public viewing. Ms. Belsky says that she never received the promised return call on the matter.

There is apparently no clear distinction of the "lead agency" for many of the parcels-both Lattanzio and Belsky report having been passed from one agency to the next, on numerous occasions, in futile searches for missing or unavailable documents which are referenced as the key data documenting site testing for Landfill 26 and other contaminated parcels.

Three studies by Woodward-Clyde, from 1985, 1986, and 1987, which are regularly cited in quoted studies and reports, remain unavailable from each government agency. Requests for these documents have been made repeatedly by investigators over the past five months.

Three citizens watched and photographed a City of Novato Public Works crew perform a hazardous materials clean up (without wearing required equipment; see associated article elsewhere in this edition of the Coastal Post)-when the crew leader was asked what was going on, his response was "I can't tell you."

_ The Army has recently fenced off part of landfill 26, including the only access road to the public document library on the base, but has not provided any other means of access, or informed the public of the changes.

Public process has been abrogated. For example, at a recent Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) public meeting, a specific request was made for inclusion of public expression for items not on the agenda, a common part of meetings by public decision-making bodies; it was refused. RAB meeting frequency has been reduced to quarterly. Comments and questions submitted to lead agencies have not received responses. RAB applicants representing adjacent communities and environmental groups have been summarily excluded. Public meetings are reportedly rehearsed in advance by the governmental agencies, in closed-door sessions. And, in general, investigators report a lack of timely release and access to government documents for public review.

In spite of repeated requests over many months: No statement has been made regarding the total cumulative affect of all risk factors on residents and children at Hamilton. No comprehensive inventory of onsite toxics has been released. No comprehensive base-wide testing of the site to assess the substances that may be present on the site is scheduled.

Alarms, Attitude, and Questions

Epidemiology is a tricky business: it is difficult to do right, and, as a field, it has become a Valhalla for those wishing to manipulate statistics to discredit legitimate health concerns. Although concerns over potentially toxic onsite substances would remain, health-related observations could easily be ascribed to minor statistical fluctuations.

But, if-as the governmental agencies insist-there is nothing to worry about, why do they seem so anxious to transfer Hamilton parcels before complete site assessment is performed? And, why are they working so hard to limit access to the relevant information? And, conversely, why aren't they working very hard to make the kind of information available that could ease the concerns being voiced?


Coastal Post Home Page