The Navy was expected to take on the responsibility, as it is a major party responsible for the plume of TCE and other toxics in the groundwater under the former Naval Air Station Moffett Field. And while the Navy, along with semiconductor companies south for Highway 101, has been doing its part to clean up the groundwater plume, the Navy is now saying that NASA, which was given the facility in 1994, should deal with the vapors that rise through the ground into buildings at Moffett.
Under superfund law, "it is definitely the Navy's responsibility," said John Chesnutt, section chief of superfund federal facility cleanup. EPA Region 9 has filed a formal dispute against the Navy after it became clear in an October letter exchange that the Navy managers in charge of Moffett's cleanup were refusing to take responsibility for the fumes.
The EPA has a list of 34 buildings at Moffett that that are occupied or will be occupied that need to be addressed. Many others are set for demolition. A building known as "126" is known to have unacceptable levels of the fumes and needs mitigation; while another 33 buildings need to be tested.
Toxic air levels found so far "don't present a more immediate, acute risk to people," Chesnutt said. "We are concerned about risk of longer term exposures to the vapors. How many years have people really been exposed? We're not sure."
Measures have already been taken to mitigate toxic vapors at the Wescoat military housing at Moffett, Chesnutt said.
` A panel of three designated officials has 21 days to decide on the dispute. If there's no resolution it will eventually work its way up to senior officials at the EPA and the Navy. But the EPA has the final say, Chesnutt said.
"It ends ultimately with Lisa Jackson, EPA administrator in Washington," Chesnutt said. "It's clear the EPA has the authority to require the Navy to address these things at the end of the day."
NASA and Navy officials declined to comment for this story, but Chesnutt said NASA does not want to take on complete financial responsibility for the fumes. However, he added that NASA may end up testing indoor air for the sake of its employees who may work in some of the buildings.
Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, called the EPA dispute argument "simple and reasonable" and said the Navy's argument had no legal foundation. As an advocate for historic Hangar One, he had other concerns as well.
"The Navy prevailed in getting the White House to make NASA pay for restoring Hangar One, and this drain on the Ames budget makes it even more difficult for NASA to come up with Hangar One funding," he said in an e-mail.