Posted by Informed,
a resident of Slater
on Apr 15, 2013 at 4:19 am
Moffett's ghost town
Orion Park's story is one of toxins, foot-dragging and failed housing plans
by Daniel DeBolt
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org