Test results "indicate that the cork room's building materials are contaminated with lead and PCBs," wrote Kathryn Stewart, the Navy's project coordinator, in an e-mail to Lenny Siegel and others. She added that "leaving the room in place "as-is" is inconsistent with the Navy's objectives.
The cork room has been called one of the most important historic structures inside Hangar One. It was built to house and maintain the gas cells from the 1930s airship the USS Macon. The 6-inch thick cork walls insulated the temperature-controlled room.
Stewart said the top quarter-inch of the cork was contaminated with lead and PCB dust, presumably collected over almost 80 years.
Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, and others have mounted a campaign to save the historic structure as the Navy mobilizes to remove contaminants from Hangar One, including acres of PCB-laden siding.
"There's no requirement that a building with lead paint in the walls has to have the walls removed," said Siegel. "That's the closest analogy I have to this."
Siegel's job is to make sure the military does an adequate job cleaning up toxics from former military bases, but lately he's experienced a bit of a role reversal.
"I'm in an uncomfortable position," Siegel said. "It's conceivable that (the cork) is unsafe, but they (the Navy) didn't make that case."
Siegel added, "I don't want toxic dust there if we build a museum inside Hangar One," alluding to the air and space museum he and several other preservationists hope to create there in partnership with the Smithsonian Institute.
Preservationists like Siegel hope the contamination can be dealt with without destroying the cork. But it appears that time is running out and the Navy is taking a "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" approach to the matter, Siegel said.
"We are not requiring a specific method of addressing the contamination," said Environmental Protection Agency project manager Sarah Kloss in an e-mail. "The contamination must be addressed to ensure that there is no risk to future receptors."
Kloss said the contamination exceeds the "closest available" cleanup standard used for soil.
While the cork may have to go, the narrow room's 225-foot-long metal frame will be preserved, the Navy says, along with the overhead pulley and rack system used to bring the cells in and out of the structure. But its wood flooring is not safe yet either, as the Navy says it will be testing that as well.
The Navy is currently asking Hangar One's owner, NASA Ames Research Center, for a final list of items to be saved from inside Hangar One, which so far does not include the complete cork room. Siegel said the cork room would have a better chance of remaining intact if NASA Ames pushes for its preservation.