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September, 2003

Army Needs To Own Hamilton Wetlands Problem
By Elena Belsky

In many ways, literally and figuratively, the Army Base Re-use And Closure (BRAC) division needs to "own" the Hamilton Wetlands Restoration Project (HWRP). The HWRP is a proposed wetlands plan that includes tidal action and sloughs, creating an enhanced habitat to attract migratory fish and birds, many of them endangered species. Everyone is in favor of reclaiming more wetlands, but shouldn't these wetlands be safe for the creatures you're attracting to them? The former military base on which the HWRP is planned contains many remaining contaminants that could be harmful to wildlife-in particular, DDT's-which Hamilton has in abundance.

In the August Coastal Post article "Army Plays Games On Hamilton Toxic Cleanup", readers were advised of the continued failure of the Army BRAC and Army Corps of Engineers (ACoE is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Army) to provide complete, reliable and workable solutions in the most critical planning documents that will create the wetlands. No one involved has any remaining illusions that the HWRP site will ever be completely "clean" and free of toxics. Not only does the Army need to take responsibility for the decades of toxic chemicals the military has discharged into the land, groundwater, coastal salt marsh and San Pablo Bay, but for the future reconstructed wetlands.

State Wants to Own Toxic PropertyÉWHY?!

The State Coastal Conservancy (SCC) wants to take ownership of the HWRP property because Army wants them to take ownership. The ACoE will not allow completion of the wetlands project (which they have already started) until the state takes possession of the property. (ACoE began the project last year by installing a pipeline for the incoming Oakland dredge material to create the wetlands) The Army is also holding up the Oakland dredge project because of their insistence that the title to the Hamilton property must be transferred to the state before continuing with the wetlands project.

Obviously, this appears to be a self-serving requirement by the Army's BRAC division, as it was designed to unload property no longer of use to the military. The SCC has incomprehensibly agreed to be the sacrificial goat to take possession of the toxic property. The Army is proceeding to attempt to transfer the HWRP property to the State of CaliforniaÉ PRIOR to cleaning up the toxic contamination.

According to CEQA documents for the project, the Army is entirely capable of retaining ownership of the contaminated parcel, AND continuing with the wetlands restoration. The state should not place the public trust or money at risk to relieve federal responsibility in a project.

Potential Financial Disaster for the State

At its August 14th meeting, the SCC Board approved spending nearly one million dollars of taxpayer money to purchase a multi-million dollar environmental insurance policy. It seems the concern is that the Army might default on their assurances to clean up the toxics, or do it incorrectly, or the wetlands design might failÉall eventualities that would cause hazardous chemicals to be released into the environment. The insurance would cost $900,000 for only a 10-year policy, where the maturation of the wetlands, and any potential erosion, is over 50 years. According to insurance bid documents, coverage for 20 years would cost $5 million. If the SCC feels they are so at risk when taking this property that they need so large an environmental insurance policy, one wonders why they are even considering taking title to the site.

The Army is paying for 75% of the project, and retains full control of the implementation of the wetlands project, and by extension, the hazardous waste clean up, or lack thereof, while the SCC is paying for 25% and only has consultation options. If this project goes awry, the SCC has voluntarily given away its authority; it, and we, will be stuck with consequences of the Army's actions.

Next Steps in the Process

The end goal for the Army and SCC is to receive the Governor's blessing (and signature) for the land transfer and all the various accompanying documents for the HWRP. The Army has set a ticking clock and is requiring that the property transfer occur before September 30, 2003, ostensibly to coincide with their fiscal year, but perhaps more just to expedite the transfer. The next step in the paper trail process is the Public Works Board-a little known state board that reviews and governs land acquisitions in California-they will meet on September 12. The board is comprised of representatives from the Department of General Services, Department of Finance and Department of Transportation-comments on the HWRP proposed land transfer may be directed to: [email protected], or (916) 445-2841, FAX: (916) 445-4633.

Summary

The transfer of property title of HWRP will cost the taxpayers of California. Additional costs could occur from exposure to liability from toxic contamination problems and perhaps even fines for hazardous releases-in perpetuity-not just for 10 years. Unless the SCC declines to take ownership of the wetlands parcel, in these hard economic times, a million dollar expenditure for an environmental insurance policy will take place. The Federal government is self-insured: it does not need to take out a costly policy.

The SCC could easily and safely continue to participate and provide 25% funding to the project, while the Army would maintain ownership and rightly assume the hazardous waste liability of the project. Why should the cash-strapped state of California take on the responsibility and burden of the Army's problems?

 

 

 

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