Mountain View Voice

News - April 5, 2013

Military families say they are in the dark about toxics

Residents at Moffett's Wescoat Village worry over TCE, water

by Daniel DeBolt

In an anonymous letter addressed to the Army and the local community late last month, military families living at Moffett Field's Wescoat Village say they have "many concerns and requests" about living above polluted soil and groundwater.

The 181-unit family housing complex — located behind Moffett's main gate at the north end of Moffett Boulevard — partly sits above a plume of trichloroethylene (TCE) dumped or leaked over many years by the Navy. The vapors that rise from the ground — when concentrated in buildings — can cause cancer from long-term exposures and birth defects from short-term exposures, among other health problems, according to EPA toxicologists.

"Many of us feel we have been living here uninformed with regards to the nearby plume," the letter states. "We worry greatly about the safety of our families and often question the possibility of toxic vapors around us and the toxicity of our soil."

"Being notified of issues potentially so dangerous should be as mandatory as having to supply the front office with the required copy of my pet's vet records to ensure they're 'safe' to be in housing," said one Wescoat resident whose post about the situation online was forwarded to the Voice. "The (Department of Defense) not being able to provide these facts is both disturbing and unacceptable. The worst part is whomever is to blame monopolizes on military families who can't afford to move, none the less live, on the economy in this area."

Military families say they receive a discount in rent at Wescoat.

Fearing conflict with Wescoat's management or the military, residents of Wescoat declined an offer for free indoor air testing. The offer came from the RJ Lee Group, a Washington-based firm that was in Mountain View last week to demonstrate its real-time air testing technology, which found five homes with TCE levels above EPA limits on Evandale Avenue. A Wescoat resident told the Voice that Wescoat residents want the EPA to test homes in the complex for TCE vapors in a way that does not single them out for a potential conflict with their commanders.

"Military people are part of hierarchical system," said Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight. "Rightly or wrongly, most of them are afraid to speak out because they could get in trouble."

In an online post, one resident expressed disappointment with Clarke Pinnacle, the contractor that manages the complex for the Army, for "having a lack of the facts to explain the circumstance. That's the rapidly growing issue."

The concerns were fueled when Wescoat's tap water recently turned brown, and residents there suffered skin rashes from bathing in it. Government officials have assured them the water is safe.

The Wescoat resident said that in an online discussion among Wescoat residents "seven different people" reported rashes from the brown tap water, which appeared March 11 through March 13.

"For some reason last night, bath water gave me a horrible allergic reaction," said one post. Another concurred, saying "Mine too! I thought it was in my head but I was so itchy and I have a bad rash on my body." Another wrote, "We're concerned, if it's affecting so many of us, if I should wash my babies' bottles or just wait. My babies are grumpy without their bath and my dishes are stacking up. I don't know what to do."

A Wescoat resident said a NASA Ames officials blamed the brown water on water main flushing. NASA supplies the former Navy base with water.

"Drinking water in this area comes from municipal sources including the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and is treated to meet all state and federal drinking water standards," said David Yogi, spokesperson for the EPA.

Siegel said he was not aware of any widespread or regular testing for TCE vapors at Wescoat. He said only a few Wescoat homes sit over concentrated portions of the TCE plume and pose a concern for vapor intrusion. Most of Wescoat appears to be above portions of the plume where the shallow groundwater TCE concentration are less than 5 parts per billion, according to an EPA map of groundwater samples.

"It's easy to see why people worry about the contamination," Siegel said. "If it's in the deep aquifer, there's no reason to believe it's a problem" for vapor intrusion. "If contamination were coming up from the deep aquifer, it would contaminate the upper aquifer."

Wescoat was built in 2006 with "passive sub-slab ventilation systems" designed to keep the TCE vapors from coming up through the floors, but residents want reassurance that the systems work.

"How do we know for sure that it is safe?" asked a resident of Wescoat who spoke with the Voice on the condition of anonymity. "No system is foolproof."

Yogi said information about the TCE plume had been given to Wescoat residents in a fact sheet and at a community advisory board meeting, but residents said they had seen neither the fact sheet nor a meeting notice.

"Residents at Moffett Field housing have never been told about the regional plume or that we live near or in between two Superfund sites," a resident said in an email. "Our housing has never informed us of the proximity of the sites when we signed our rental contracts. No one from the EPA has ever communicated this information to our residents nor has there ever been a community meeting offered by the EPA here at Moffet Field."

Yogi said the EPA has tentatively scheduled a meeting for Wescoat residents on April 15 at 6 p.m. at NASA Ames.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com

Comments

Posted by Informed, a resident of Slater
on Apr 15, 2013 at 4:16 am

Moffett's ghost town
Orion Park's story is one of toxins, foot-dragging and failed housing plans

by Daniel DeBolt

Bookmark and Share
It seems like something out of a science fiction movie. Two years ago, the 450-unit Orion Park military housing complex was filled with families going about their busy lives.

Cut to the present day: Nothing but vacant houses and empty streets. Though the properties are in good condition, there's not even a "For sale" sign out front.

It's an eerie scene which begs the question, "What happened here?"

The short answer: The military moved its units stationed here, and the families were dispersed to other locations. And despite Silicon Valley's housing shortage, the site's 450 units will never again be used due to a toxic gas that is leaching from underground, and has been detected in four units of the complex.

Built in the 1950s, the 72-acre complex at Moffett Field was home to Navy, Army, Air Force and National Guard families. Before the last residents moved out last year, trichloroethylene vapors had been detected in several homes at three times the allowable limit. The chemical, called TCE for short, is a known carcinogen once used as an industrial solvent.

In 2002, a reporter from the Voice came across Sylvia and Eric Russel, two Orion Park residents who believed their daughter's skin rashes were caused by playing in the sandbox at Orion Park. Doctors said it was eczema, but "How do you get eczema in the summer?" asked Sylvia, whose husband, Sgt. 1st Class Eric Russell, was a computer programmer for the Army.

The couple said the Army did not pay them enough to move elsewhere. Other Orion residents told the Voice they were not concerned and that they had been told what the risks were.

Military families are not likely to be as vocal about living above toxins as civilians, said Lenny Siegel, a local expert on military base cleanups. On only one occasion did a member of a military family come to a meeting on the issue, he said.

Siegel said it was odd that pollution wasn't found at the site until the late 1990s, long after other Superfund sites were discovered across Highway 101. If NASA's findings are correct, the TCE contamination may have been there for many decades.

Despite criticism from the EPA, NASA and the Moffett Field Restoration Advisory Board, the Navy refused to test the air inside the homes at Orion Park until 2004, insisting that a computer program told them the homes were theoretically safe from TCE vapors. In 2004, the Navy finally tested the indoor air of 22 vacant homes at Orion, three of which were found to have unsafe vapor levels (On Tuesday, the EPA said it found four homes with unsafe levels).

The Navy claimed the TCE vapors were coming from the outdoor air instead of out of the ground. Siegel called that argument a "sleight of hand."

While various agencies wrangled over the TCE contamination, new purposes were considered for the site. During San Francisco's bid for the 2012 Olympics, Orion Park was a favored site for the Olympic Village, with dreams for a world-class housing development there.

"It's our first choice," said Bay Area Sports Organizing Committee spokesperson Tony Winnicker in 2002. This prompted later concerns that the world's top athletes would have lived atop a Superfund site.

The idea never came to fruition, of course, and the 2012 Olympics was awarded to London.

Military housing developer Clark Pinnacle also had plans to build new homes on the site, but backed out, according to a 2005 report. In 2003, Rafael Muniz, Clark Pinnacle's project manager, explained that "we don't know enough about the environmental issues at Moffett to know what the legal liability would be or how the financing would be affected."

Half of the property will soon become a training center for Army reservists, but watchdogs still believe the other half could become housing if the proper mitigations are taken.

NASA believes the sources of the TCE may have been a former dry cleaner and a farm's septic tank that predated the housing. There is no evidence that the source is the so-called "MEW" Superfund site across Highway 101, though Navy studies have claimed this. Under Superfund law, Siegel said, the Navy will likely end up with the bill to clean the site.

Until something is done, the multi-million dollar toxic mess is migrating slowly to NASA property across the street. At the very least, NASA has asked that a barrier be installed around the plume's perimeter to stop it from moving any farther.

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


If you were a member and logged in you could track comments from this story.

Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields