Coastal Post Online

July 2001

Hamilton Toxic Drum Site Repeatedly Mishandled

By Elena Belsky

The saga of the toxic drums on Hamilton: this story is one that does not seem to want to go away. It not only continues, but gets progressively worse with every chapter.

A recap of the basics: While hiking on December 10, 2000, I stumbled upon four 55 gallon drums (one upturned partially empty black drum; two full, yellow barrels, and one wrapped heavily in black plastic- visible through a gap, there were orange stenciled letters with code numbers indicating Army use), three 5 gallon cans (two were full of an oily fluid), and one exposed old-style power transformer (the PCB kind) laying on its side, leaking.

The City of Novato was contacted on December 12. The following day the site was draped in clear plastic. Other than that, the toxic site was untouched.

On December 19, after citizen complaints to the City of Novato about lack of control of a dangerous area, one barrel and the exposed transformer were placed upright, and a strip of red caution tape was placed on the ground in front of the drums.

Now a twist in the plot: oddly enough, sometime between December 19 and December 26, the exposed PCB transformer was placed in a third yellow drum and a series of photos confirm that the black plastic-wrapped drum disappeared completely from the site. Only a large pile of heavy-duty black plastic was left behind. This was PRIOR to the City of Novato's clean up on January 9, 2001.

Inconsistencies between photographic evidence, the City of Novato's correspondence with County regulators, and their HazMat Removal Contractor's final report, are rampant. In an official report to Marin County hazardous materials specialist and regulator, Greg Mobley, dated March 15, 2001, Domenic Zigant of the City of Novato states that their contractor removed "two transformers, one 55 gallon drum of unknown contents, three 5 gallon cans of electrical insulating oil and some miscellaneous debris." Yet three pages later, in the Consultant's report, KR Environmental says they removed "four electrical transformers, oil and debris containing PCB'sÉ". Photographs show there should have been FIVE drums, three 5 gallon oil cans, and related debris on the site.

The City of Novato contacted the US Army with the serial numbers from only two of the transformers, to determine the previously tested levels of PCB contamination-one was 0 ppm and the other was 8 ppm. Two additional, possibly hazardous transformers were left untested (State standards indicate that 5ppm and above must be considered hazardous waste). The HazMat consultants did not do any additional testing of the transformers prior to removal from the site, which is unusual, as they hadn't fully identified the toxics situation. Soil samples were only taken from the surface two inches of soil, which was on top of an asphalt base - these showed low levels of PCB's in the general site area.

On a site visit a short time later, citizen watchdogs became aware of a prevalent petroleum/chemical odor in the dump site area, and noticed significant staining of soil and asphalt. Another call was placed to the City of Novato.

Soon after, on March 16, 2001, a different group of local watchdogs happened upon a City of Novato work crew digging down a few feet into the site, breaking up the asphalt with a forklift, placing the debris in large bags, and loading it into a rental truck. They were curious and concerned enough to ask Crew Chief Frank Wright what was going on, to which he responded: "I can't tell you."

Now the observers were no longer curious, but alarmed and upset. They took pictures, and noted that the workers were handling the admittedly contaminated soil (when asked, one of the workers declared "we're removing soil with PCB's) without gloves, or any breathing apparatus. Use of an unapproved rental van without Department of Transportation mandated hazardous materials identification and placards, is a violation of Federal and State laws and subject to fines.

Upon subsequent investigation, it became apparent that the City of Novato did not have a Work Plan for Hazardous Materials Removal, manifests for trucking, or testing data to support the scope of their work.

On many of the sold-off Army parcels, there are deed restrictions prohibiting excavation below a few feet, without prior permission from the Regional Water Quality Control Board due to underground toxics.

The City of Novato was prohibited from returning to work on the toxic dump site for a THIRD time, by the HazMat Specialist from Marin County, due to lack of a work plan and proper documentation. There have not been any "confirmation" samples conducted on the excavation to determine the level or extent of any remaining PCB's or other toxics in the soil.

Upon investigation, the County of Marin indicated that they had not been provided with any test data or work plans for the Novato Dump Site, and referred the request to the City of Novato. After phone calls to City officials did not produce the desired results, a letter of request was formally submitted to view the City's file.

The following response was received from Steve Wallace, Principal Engineer and head of the division in a letter dated May 1, 2001: "You have already been provided with everything that you are presently asking for, except for the personal notes which are protected under the deliberative process privilege and will not be disclosed under the Public Records Act." The reference being to the original site work documents from January 9, 2001-it seems there has been no other documentation, work plans, test results or transport manifests for any of the subsequent hazardous materials removal or work that the City of Novato has conducted on the site.

Although a small site, with perhaps moderate potential for health and environmental damage (relative to the rest of former Hamilton Air Force Base), it is indicative of the situation facing the public when dealing with the various agencies and on Hamilton. Confusion is common, with jurisdictions not clearly defined, and cooperation given reluctantly, if at all. The handling of the Toxic Drum Dump site has been poor, with agencies being unresponsive, misleading to the public, and refusing outright to provide public documents. The safety of City workers and those citizens living around the Dump site have been repeatedly jeopardized by not following common sense, worker safety laws (CAL-OSHA), and Hazardous Materials Handling (Federal and State) laws. For the health and welfare of all parties concerned, it's time for the various agencies experiencing problems with process, to get it right.




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