Coastal Post Online


January 2002

Toxic Dump Under Ballfield;  Army Blows Off Other Agencies
By Elena Belsky

   In the latest episode of the bizarre story that is the Hamilton Air Force Base (HAFB) re-use, the United States Army has unilaterally declared that it is the lead regulatory agency for toxic clean up work on their own parcels, blatantly dismissing the authority of other agencies.  This move attempts to eliminate the roles of State of California environmental regulatory and oversight agencies-namely, the State Department of Toxic Substances Control [DTSC] and the Regional Water Quality Control Board [RWQCB]-from key positions of authority on Hamilton clean up issues. 

Army Gives Oversight Agencies the 'Brush-Off'
   At a public meeting in December, Ed Keller, coordinator of the Army's Base Re-use and Closure (BRAC), announced that remediation work had already begun on two sites in the wetlands project, near the Coastal Marsh (a critical habitat area), with two additional hazardous excavation and removal sites being added to the work schedule in mid-January. 
   State regulators and members of the public in attendance were surprised by the Army's statements, and expressed confusion at the lack of procedure, and dismay at the "we're taking over" attitude. The announcement by the Army that it had already begun work implies apparent violations of process, in that the Remedial Action Plan for the Wetlands Project (which is mandated by the State) has not been finalized or approved, nor has the Army responded to comments from the public or the regulatory agencies, or completed the California Environmental Quality Act process - all of which are necessary prior to the Army receiving final approval of the Remedial Action Plan, and  PRIOR to the Army beginning any work. 
   The DTSC representative, Lance McMahon, in particular, took exception to the Army's insistence that they were now in charge of their own oversight.
   Naomi Feger, the Regional Board representative, surprisingly did not express similar concerns, and merely pointed out that the Army was "running a risk of the agencies not being happy with the work, and having to do it over again."
   Tom Roth, aide to Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, asked the Army if there was a potential conflict with other agencies.  Mr. Keller responded, "Yes, there are potential conflicts, no doubt."  Then went on to say that if the Army 's "new found" authority were challenged, it would end up in Federal Court.
   The Army provided no information as to under what legal authority the military believes it can commandeer the role of lead oversight agency for their own project, superseding California State Environmental laws.
   The bigger and more frightening question is whether the Department of Defense (DOD) should be allowed to choose which potential toxic sites should undergo investigation, which should receive remediation, and the extent of clean up efforts.  Keeping in mind that the DOD will have to pay the clean up costs for whatever is uncovered, it seems a great disincentive to the DOD actively looking for hazardous sites, or properly cleaning the ones they DO find.

Toxic Dump Believed Under Ballfield
   The military's site investigations at Hamilton, so far, have been less than thorough.  Just as the Army announced their oversight "take over,"  a new, previously uninvestigated toxic dump has been discovered under a children's playground and community ballfield. 
   Not surprisingly, the disclosure of this hazard was not brought forth by the Army, the Navy, the Army Corps, or any other government military branch owning property at Hamilton. The disclosure was made by a State Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) regulator doing the job we taxpayers pay him to do - provide regulatory oversight to protect the public and environmental health. In contrast to the obfuscation techniques employed by HAFB's military tenants, as they protect their own narrow interests, this is yet another example that speaks to the benefits to the public of the role of the State and other oversight agencies.
   In a July of 2001 Army Archive Search Review (precipitated by retired 6th Army Inspector Robert Foley's report of an previously unknown hazardous dump site), another retired military officer stepped forward to report yet another unidentified toxic dump near the southern end of the base. The witness remembered a "cattail swamp" in which there was upwelling oil, and seeing trucks backing up to the swamp, and dumping materials that had been collected from the airplane hangars and aviation maintenance shops. The Archive Search Review was released in September, including interviews and aerial photos confirming the reports of the witness. In the mid-1950s, the site was filled with dirt, and graded into a ballfield.  Just last year, community volunteers built a  children's playground and new baseball field - unwittingly and unfortunately on top of a possible toxic dump site.
   Although in possession of this information from July to December of 2001, there was no further investigation by the military of the site in question or of the witness' claims. 
Interviews and aerial photo examination by the DTSC indicate that further investigation of the potential toxic waste dump is warranted. The next step is for the military (whichever branch ends up having jurisdiction of the property!) to conduct a detailed site inspection and various physical samples to confirm suspicions and determine the possible extent of any contamination.
   The latest unknown hazardous dump should have been identified long ago, especially as the site has changed hands a number of times over the years; most recently from the Navy, to the Department of Interior, in preparation for sale to the City of Novato. However, it seems clear, from the preponderance of evidence in the HAFB re-use conversion process, that the military's various branches were far from exemplary in documenting their use of the property and cleaning up after themselves.
   Note: Mr. Foley, a retired 6th Army Hazardous Materials Inspector, who has been the subject of an aggressive campaign to discredit him in relation to his reports of inappropriate hazardous waste disposal at HAFB, also reported a second hazardous waste dump on the Rio Vista Army base in the Sacramento Delta area, the existence of which-while initially denied by the Army-was subsequently confirmed.
   The military cannot seem to find their own hazardous waste sites, even with dozens of years to look.  What protections for the public and environmental health and welfare can we expect, looking at the military's track record at Hamilton?
   It is time for Army and whomever else, to step in and figure out where all the hazardous sites are, submit to close supervision of the state regulators, and to do the remediation work ONLY if approved by the State agencies.  The Army must recognize that they own property and are working in the State of California, and therefore must accept State jurisdiction and get their projects moving forward in a safe, legal, and respectful manner.

Follow up to December's Coastal Post Article on Landfill 26/Regional Board Action against Army: 
   While occasionally asking tough questions regarding HAFB issues, Lynn Woolsey's office nevertheless has 'played ball' with the Army in certain critical areas. In a late breaking move, just before the November 29, 2001 Regional Board Hearing to adopt the Clean Up and Abatement Order for Landfill 26, Congresswoman Woolsey intervened on the Army's behalf, altering the RWQCB's Order for Landfill 26 from an immediate timeline, to one that begins in 2005 (to coincide with Federal funding) leaving the environmental concerns and the interim status of Landfill 26 and adjacent properties in question. 

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