Mountain View Voice

News - April 6, 2012

Army: toxic cleanup is not our problem

Despite investigation, source of Orion Park's toxics still mysterious

by Daniel DeBolt

Activists and regulators are at odds with the U.S. Army over toxics contaminating Orion Park, a former housing complex site just outside Moffett Field.

While toxics have been found in groundwater samples and even in the indoor air of homes once on the site, the Army's draft "site investigation" report for Orion Park recommends the toxics not be cleaned up by the Army and "recommends no further action for the TCE plume underlying the Site."

The Army's position hinges on the claim that there was no on-site source of the toxics, which could put the cleanup responsibility on someone else.

"Because no sources of TCE were found on site, the Army plans to seek site closure," the report concludes.

The Army's claims are disputed by the EPA and Mountain View resident and toxic cleanup expert Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight. They say the Army has not proven its claims of no on-site source, and Siegel said the Army is shirking its legal obligations for site cleanup. The Army has also been ordered to take responsibility for Orion Park's environmental condition by the Department of Defense.

TCE is Trichloroethylene, the carcinogenic solvent once used by nearby defense department and computer industry operations, which dumped it and leaked it into the ground. In October the EPA confirmed that TCE is "carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure" and says that inhalation can cause "hepatic, renal, neurological, immunological, reproductive, and developmental effects." It's most dangerous when the vapors rising from the ground are trapped in buildings.

A dilemma?

Laurie J. Decker, Chief of Public Affairs for the U.S. Army Environmental Command, initially called the Army "an innocent land owner" that did not know about the contamination when it took over the site from the Air Force in 2000 (The Navy owned the site previously), but later confirmed in an email that the Army did know.

While it's acknowledged that at least part of Orion Park's toxics came from nearby plumes being cleaned up by the Navy and several tech companies, the Army's claim that there was no on-site source is under dispute by the EPA, who says testing was inadequate in its official comments on the report.

Decker says the off-site sources "create somewhat of a dilemma."

"Who's to say it would not get contaminated again?" she said.

Orion Park is now home to a new Army reserve training and command post, and Decker noted that new buildings have vapor barriers and ventilation systems installed to help prevent a soldier's exposure to TCE vapors.

Army's positions challenged

Siegel said there is one caveat to the Army's legal responsibility to pay for cleanup: if another party is found to have at least contributed to the site's contamination, and has enough money to pay for cleanup, the Army could be reimbursed. But Siegel and the EPA say that the Army has not proved a connection to nearby superfund sites, which would probably be easier than trying to disprove the existence of an on-site source.

Despite the Army's conclusions, Siegel says Orion Park's groundwater data seems to indicate that there was an on-site source. In its official comments on the Army's report, superfund remedial project manager Alana Lee and Water Board project manager Elizabeth Wells say that the Army's investigation has "insufficient data" to explain certain "hot spots" or "locations of concern" as areas where there may have been a source of contamination. "Therefore, the Army's recommendation for 'no further action' is premature," writes Lee and Wells.

"Even if you rule out everything else, there's always the possibility of midnight dumping," Siegel said. Siegel said that he recently traveled to a toxics site in Long Island where there was no known source of toxics, but the ground was contaminated badly, probably by people from nearby industries who "got rid of their barrels of stuff" by dumping it on the site. In such a scenario the Army would be legally obligated to clean up the mess.

Cheaper to clean?

In the long run, Siegel says it is cheaper to clean up the toxics than to maintain vapor intrusion barriers and special ventilation systems on buildings. And while the homes are gone, the quality of the area's groundwater is still a major concern, not to mention the fact that the southeastern end of the plume has already migrated into NASA Ames, which is trying to clean up a plume already on its property.

He recalled the EPA's testing of some of the apartments once located at Orion Park that found indoor air levels of TCE above acceptable limits. A chaplain who served the military families at Orion Park said the TCE was a major concern, though many were hesitant to talk publicly about it, Siegel recalled. He also believes the TCE was why housing developer Clark Pinnacle pulled out of plans to build housing at Orion Park a few years ago.

"You are required by law to protect people even if they are your own people," Siegel said of the Army and its staff and soldiers who now use the property.

EPA officials say they are in ongoing negotiations with the Army over the site's cleanup. They noted that the Army is responsible for Orion Park under an order issued in 2008 by Wayne Arny, deputy undersecretary of the department of defense, that the Department of the Army "will be responsible for (Orion Park's) environmental condition."

EPA officials said they did not want to discuss the situation on the record.

"Cleaning up Superfund sites and ensuring the protection of public health as we re-use these properties are important priorities," EPA project manager Lee said in an email.

While the Army investigation recommends "no further action," Decker said in an email Wednesday, "The Army is not claiming that cleanup of the groundwater contamination on and near (Orion Park) is not needed." She repeatedly made the claim that the Army did not cause the problem and notes that previous investigations also could not find an on-site source of toxics.

The Army's report can be found on the EPA's Region 9 website: tinyurl.com/7ow3m6s. Comments on the report should be sent to Amanda.R.Michels.civ@mail.mil.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

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