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Publication Date: Friday, July 18, 2003

Hangar One pollutes marsh Hangar One pollutes marsh (July 18, 2003)

Navy, not NASA, will decide whether to demolish historic blimp building

By Julie O'Shea

Through two years of bitter disputes over the cleanup of a contaminated Moffett Field wetland, no one -- not the Navy, NASA, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, nor local government and environmentalists -- realized that the culprit for the pollution is a regional landmark: Moffett's historic Hangar One.

The future of the marsh, which is tainted with PCBs, DDT and heavy metals, has been a flashpoint for city government and environmental advocates who object to Navy cleanup plans that will prevent the marsh from being reattached to San Francisco Bay.

But through the ongoing debates, it was assumed that the pollution came from past Navy actions on the Moffett runway. But now that it seems PCBs -- polychlorinated biphenyls, which were used in electronic equipment and are known to cause cancer and neurological damage - are washing off the outside of Hangar One and into the marsh with each rainstorm, the cleanup has been delayed for at least a year.

The mammoth blimp garage was shut down in May after NASA found the PCBs mixed in with the structure's paint. But even then, it was not clear that the toxins were washing off the hangar during the rainy season and into the marsh, which was cut off from the Bay about a century ago by an earthen dike.

This news, officials said, will delay the cleanup of the wetland until next summer. to give federal agencies time to set up a system to stop toxins from running into the marsh.

"NASA should really be credited for this," said Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight and a Mountain View resident. "I thought it was good detective work, a solid environmental study."

Responding to intense public pressure, NASA, which took control of Moffett in 1994, said earlier this year that it would look into the possibility of restoring the wetland to a full tidal marsh, a decision officials estimate is still five years off.

But to the dismay of local environmentalists, the Navy -- which is responsible for cleaning up Moffett's pollution -- said it would hold off cleaning all the contamination until after NASA decides whether it can be returned to a tidal marsh. If NASA decides against restoration, the absence of a sensitive saltwater ecosystem would allow the Navy to leave some of the PCBs in the marsh.

The Navy this summer was planning to clean an area known as the Eastern Diked Marsh, which is not being considered for tidal restoration. But those plans were derailed after the discovery at Hangar One.

"For Save the Bay, it looks like we've come full circle, and we're back where we started from," said a frustrated Briggs Nisbet, the restoration manager for the Berkeley-based environment group. "They may be putting the cleanup on hold, but they haven't put the decision on hold.

"It looks to me that the Navy has already made a decision, and they aren't telling us," she added.

Nisbet said she suspects that decision to be that the Navy has no intention of cleaning the area to the standards required for tidal restoration.

Officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) say they just want to get the area cleaned up and fast.

But "it wouldn't make sense," said Lida Tan, the EPA project manager, if the Navy started the cleanup while PCBs continued to flow into the marsh.

In the meantime, the Navy is working to put a temporary measure in place that would stem the flow of toxins into the marsh. Officials said they hope to have something installed within the next couple of months. Cleanup of the wetland could then start by next summer, they said.

Environmental advocates like Siegel and Nisbet were joined by the City of Mountain View and Congressional Rep. Anna Eshoo over the past two years in saying they'd like to see a full cleanup started at that time. They argue that the Navy doesn't have to wait for NASA to make a decision on tidal restoration to do a thorough cleanup.

But preparing the land for full tidal restoration would cost more than if the area was maintained as a "storm water retention pond" that dries out each summer. Estimates for a full cleanup run around $2 million. The Navy has already shelled out around $100 million over the years in a Moffett Field cleanup effort that ranges from toxic marshes to leaky landfills.

In a surprise announcement, Navy officials last week said they would not only foot the bill for the wetland cleanup, but also for Hangar One.

This means the Navy will decide whether to tear down the 38,000-square-foot-building, which is part of the Shenandoah Plaza National Historic District. Demolition was one option NASA floated for getting rid of the PCBs.

Although NASA will have a say in the Navy's final choice, said the space agency's environmental chief, Sandy Olliges, "the Navy will act as the lead agency." This arrangement takes the pressure off NASA of making a potentially controversial decision on the hangar: the mere mention of demolition elicited an uproar from historic preservation groups.

Navy officials said it would be "premature" to comment on the fate of Hangar One at this time.

Other options NASA outlined in May include sealing the toxins under a protective coat and replacing contaminated structural materials in the hangar, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Each option would cost between $10 million and $50 million, according to NASA estimates.

Alison Hicks, a member of the Mountain View Preservation Alliance, doesn't want to see the hangar come down.

"It's still a fascinating and historic structure that marks Mountain View," she said. "We're still interested in it as an icon, no matter what is going on with the PCBs."

The chemicals were found in the air inside the facility and in its storm water drainage system, as well as its paint.

E-mail Julie O'Shea at


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