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August, 2003

Army Corps Plays Games On Hamilton Toxic Cleanup

By Elena Belsky


The Hamilton Wetlands Restoration Project (HWRP) is an ambitious, innovative concept that, if done properly, could create a model for wetlands restoration. Unfortunately, there has been very little done properly to ensure that the project is completely viable. The Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB), the Department of Toxic Substances (DTSC), the US Army and US Army Corps of Engineers' (ACoE) continue to offer vague, incomplete and incorrect information on the wetlands project, with the Army also providing mishandled and dubious sampling data.

Many major issues of concern remain unanswered. Why has the ACoE failed to provide the project's modeling results to the public? Where are DTSC and RWQCB provisions mandating that all of the toxics be either removed or rendered harmless before opening the wetlands to the tidal action of San Pablo and San Francisco bays? Who would be responsible for toxic releases into the bay, and what are the contingency plans? Will there be consequences for the Army for its continued poor data handling and, at times, flagrant manipulation of data?

Recently, the RWQCB, DTSC and Army concurrently released six highly technical documents related to the HWRP-nearly all of which had concurrent deadlines for public review. Citizens complained about this mass "dumping" as a technique to overwhelm the public, and about difficulty accessing the documents. Requests for extensions to the public review periods were denied by the Army (the state agencies offered no response). Such behavior is not conducive to public participation. But maybe that was the point as the documents were rife with serious technical flaws.

Sue Lattanzio, director of Friends of Novato Creek, an environmental watchdog group, states in their assessment of the state agency and Army documents: "Overall, it is unclear whether the proposed actions will be protective of public health and the environment or, for that matter, exactly what is proposed."

No Public Disclosure Of Wetlands Modeling Results

Nowhere in the administrative record is there evidence that the proposed wetlands model will work. The ACoE has been conducting technical modeling on the project for at least two years, yet have never disclosed the results to the public; nor, it seems, officially to other regulatory agencies, or that would appear in the public record. Will the plan of covering remaining toxics on site with three feet of Oakland dredge spoils stay stable once tidal action is introduced? Will the tide erode the dirt down to the hazardous chemicals underneath? These are questions that should not be left unanswered or left to chance. A comprehensive monitoring, maintenance, oversight and especially a contingency plan should be created and made available for public review. The restoration project simply cannot proceed without assurances and proof that San Pablo and San Francisco bays, and their endangered species habitats, will not be placed in jeopardy by released hazardous chemicals.

Army Continues to Mishandle Sampling Data

The Army continues to exhibit discrepancies in data handling and reporting with seeming regularity. So much so that it calls into question the validity of the information being presented. For example, when a duplicate sample is taken from a location, BOTH should be reported with the highest value being used as a target for the clean up goal. Not only has the Army failed to identify duplicate samples, but chose to report only the LOWER sample value. In another example, a duplicate sample from one document was listed as "not analyzed" in another. Yet another time, data showing an extremely high level of DDT was rejected without justification.

Faulty categorization and identification of hazardous sites continues to plague the Army at Hamilton. A significant amount of toxics were discovered scattered throughout the Coastal Salt Marsh (CSM) of Hamilton; including high levels of DDTs, PCBs and pentachlorophenol (a wood preservative that also notoriously contained a very toxic byproduct - dioxins). The Army chose to not test for dioxins in the CSM, and limited the sampling for the other chemicals, even though some samples were greater than 300 times the clean up levels.

Omitting Toxic Sites from the Clean Up List

By rough count, about 80 readily available sample data points showing toxic substance levels above clean up goals were missing from the RWQCB, DTSC and Army's clean up list. 40 of these were in the highly sensitive CSM, and were highly contaminated. Therefore the areas proposed for clean up were significantly under-represented and underestimated.

It seems that sampling data is being withheld from public review. The Army sampled for DDT throughout the main airfield (proposed wetlands) parcel in March of 2003-yet four months later the data still hasn't been released nor is it a part of the current HWRP documents.

Army and RWQCB Attempt to Keep Decisions from Public Review

One of the required parts of a plan for cleaning up a toxic site is appropriate choice of "Alternatives"- meaning that three or four carefully planned and detailed options must be available. Example: Alternative 1 is no action needed, and Alternative 2 might be excavate the toxics and safely remove it off-site to a toxics facility. These Alternatives are necessarily clear and definite, and are chosen ahead of time to match EVERY site listed for clean up. The Alternatives must be listed in documents released to the public and regulators for review and comment. In the case of the HWRP clean up document, discretionary language has been inserted into three of the four Alternatives, creating huge loopholes to change or eliminate clean up procedures at a later date - "as negotiated by the Army and RWQCB." This leaves the public entirely out of any decision-making, and leaves the Army free from public review and oversight. This is inconsistent with federal laws regulating clean up procedures and public participation.

Summary

The public could hope that such an ambitions wetlands restoration is possible. While it may indeed be possible, it seems more and more unlikely that the state regulators and Army's pattern of behavior can yield anything of much benefit. Mishandling of data and/or incompetence is not comforting from a lead agency, nor is obvious manipulation of information and public participation. The Army, in particular, needs to clean up its own act before attempting to clean up Hamilton for a sensitive wetlands project that might expose San Francisco Bay to toxics.

 

 

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