Mountain View Voice

News - February 25, 2011

Navy agrees to clean up Moffett TCE fumes

by Daniel DeBolt

Resolving a dispute with the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States Navy has agreed to take responsibility for toxic vapors inside buildings at Moffett Field. The deal is easing the minds of people who work in those buildings, including Bill Berry, president of University Associates.

Berry works in historic former Navy building 19, which sits over Moffett's underground plume of TCE, an industrial solvent that polluted the soil and groundwater at Moffett years ago. Berry said he can't help but wonder about the TCE fumes.

"Normally I leave window open to ventilate the office while the heater is cooking it," he said.

Under the agreement made between high level EPA and Navy officials on Feb. 9, the Navy is expected to come up with a plan within weeks to test the air inside buildings at Moffett. If necessary, the Navy would have to install ventilation systems or other mitigation measures, costing as much as $200,000 for a 20,000-square-foot building. Over 30 occupied buildings at Moffett have not been tested since 2003.

Moffett Field Museum

Tests of the air inside the Moffett Field Museum have found TCE vapor levels unacceptable to the EPA. The museum "has been sampled several times since 2008 and indoor air concentrations have exceeded EPA indoor air cleanup levels," EPA records say.

While the museum would like a new HVAC system, "I don't think anybody is terribly concerned about" the TCE vapor levels, which aren't necessarily hazardous, said Herb Parsons, the Moffett Field Historical Society president. Museum volunteers typically work four hours a day and "the vapor levels are not hazardous enough to warrant us to leave."

Parsons added that it definitely shouldn't be a concern to museum visitors.

Others who work in Moffett's buildings full time may have more cause for concern. Berry has asked the EPA and NASA for updates on air testing in his building during Moffett Field Restoration Advisory Board meetings.

"What we want to know is that NASA or the Navy is periodically monitoring it," Berry said of the indoor air. "Over time the plume does change."

A "hot spot" sits near his building.

Berry has received some reassurance from the EPA that the levels are "are very low," Berry said. "That is reassuring."

Known carcinogen

Ever since Mountain View resident Lenny Siegel started the Center for Public Environmental Oversight in 1992, a handful of people have come to him saying they believed their health problems were caused by exposure to TCE vapors while working at Moffett. But making a definitive link is impossible, Siegel said.

"I can't blame people for ascribing their diseases to exposure when we don't have a better explanation," Siegel said.

TCE is a known carcinogen, and human health effects include kidney and liver cancer, lymphoma and various other reproductive, developmental and neurological effects, the EPA has reported.

The agreement with the Navy came after the EPA filed a formal dispute against the Navy for its refusal to take on the responsibility last year. The Navy had argued that the indoor fumes were the responsibility of NASA, which took over Moffett from the Navy in 1994. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo had also called on the Navy to take responsibility.

"I'm highly pleased to have the Navy respond positively to my request to participate in the toxic vapor cleanup efforts," Eshoo said in a statement." The Navy has responsibility for the contamination and they must clean up their mess to avoid potential health risks."

Faster clean up

Siegel said the agreement requires the Navy to conduct testing and mitigation first, then figure out who exactly is financially responsible later. Other parties that could have contributed to the plume at Moffett are Silicon Valley computer makers across Highway 101 who used TCE in manufacturing during the 1980s.

"From the community's point of view, we don't care as much about allocation of financial responsibilities as much as we want to get it done," Siegel said. "It's not our job to resolve those issues."

"NASA has been making its way slowly through the buildings, but this will get it done faster, I would assume," Siegel said. "This should free up Navy funds and contractors to do the work."

In an e-mail, the Navy acknowledged its responsibilities under the agreement, which said it will allow the Navy to "expeditiously implement its responsibilities for vapor intrusion work at Moffett Field."

"The Navy will implement the vapor intrusion remedy in accordance with the terms of the dispute resolution and is currently preparing an implementation schedule for EPA review and concurrence," said Navy base closure manager John Hill.

A map of the TCE plume at Moffett can be found at mv-voice.com.

E-mail Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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