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December 31, 2004

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Publication Date: Friday, December 31, 2004

Struggle continues for Moffett's future Struggle continues for Moffett's future (December 31, 2004)

Millions at stake in battle over toxic sites

By Jon Wiener

Second of two parts

As with many future plans for Moffett Field, the specter of toxic pollution looms over SpaceWorld Hangar One.

The aerospace museum-cum-theme park was envisioned as the finishing touch on the 7,000-employee NASA Research Park, but was put on hold after toxic chemicals were discovered inside Hangar One last summer.

Organizers expect the project, which they say will feature rides and interactive exhibits, to cost $380 million to complete and to attract up to 1.5 million visitors in the first year of operation. An eight-member board of directors, made up of representatives from NASA and the cities of Mountain View and Sunnyvale, is currently searching for an executive director to help raise funds. But those projections and efforts could all be rendered meaningless if the Navy continues to ignore the toxic pollution inside the hangar.

As reported last week in the Voice , the battle over the cleanup of pollutants at Moffett Field has led many to accuse the Navy of avoiding its legal responsibilities.

Since transferring ownership of Moffett Field to NASA in 1994, the Navy has spent more than $121 million cleaning up the pollution it left behind during its six decades at the base. With an additional $52.5 million remaining in the clean-up budget, the controversy swirling around the process has major ramifications for Moffett's future.

Thus far, the Navy has resisted investigating the possibility of cleaning up the interior of Hangar One, a stance that has generated substantial criticism from community groups.

Several agencies submitting comments on the Navy's work plan were unanimous in their demands that the Navy change its tune, saying officials had abused a technicality to dodge their responsibility.

"We really want to know if we can reuse the hangar," said Shelly Clubb, NASA's environmental services chief. "In order to do that, we really need them to do the work."

The Navy will have the opportunity to change its stance when it issues a final decision on the cleanup of the hangar in January.


  'Victory' at polluted wetland

At the same time, the Navy is set to begin investigating clean-up possibilities at another polluted site that has drawn the community's attention over the last five years.

A polluted drainage pond known as Site 25 is an unlikely place for a high-pitched environmental battle. But a public relations campaign led by Save The Bay has featured rallies and generated hundreds of letters from the public demanding a full cleanup at the toxic site.

Decades of storm-water runoff carrying toxic chemicals left the former wetland site too polluted to be used for anything other than a drainage pond during the rainy season. Chemical solvents and pesticides in the soil and the Navy's reluctance to pay for their removal are the last remaining obstacles to the land being restored to tidal marsh.

The clamor for a full cleanup at the site reached a crescendo in early December when NASA announced that it wants the Navy to restore most of the site and clean the remainder enough to support aquatic life.

Environmentalists have hailed the announcement as a major win in their effort to force a full cleanup.

"This is the beginning of the end," said Lenny Siegel, a local activist and a national expert on toxic cleanups at closed military basis.

"In our minds this is the first step to victory," said Briggs Nesbit, executive director of Save The Bay. "We still have to get the Navy to agree."

If a chorus of critics is to be believed, that will not be a particularly easy task.


  Housing possibilities

The futures of several other sites on Moffett, while not as far along in the planning stages, also remain in flux.

The Army-owned housing development at Orion Park sits atop a contaminated plume of ground water for which no one wants to take responsibility. Army officials have been discussing plans to privatize the homes, which lie outside of Moffett's fence, but say that any potential changes will have to take the pollution issues into account.

Nearly 250 military and civilian families live in the development, but about 200 other units remain empty. Complaints from residents about health problems led to testing in the vacant homes, which found the air in several of them to be contaminated with trichloroethene (TCE), a cancer-causing solvent.

Meanwhile, hints of a new round of military-base closures have the Mountain View City Council worried about the departure of the Air National Guard, a move that would mark the end of seven decades of Moffett's use as an airfield.

Others see it as an opportunity. Siegel's Alliance for a New Moffett Field has pushed for building more homes at Moffett. But tearing up the runways, as Siegel's group has proposed, could lead to the discovery of more toxic problems, and a whole new round of clean-up battles.
The Navy's duties

The Navy has clashed with the public over the clean-up process since it left Moffett as the military was closing down hundreds of bases throughout the country at the end of the Cold War.

A Department of Defense manual published in 1995 listed the main goal of the process: "Close bases quickly, but in a manner that will preserve valuable assets to support rapid reuse and development."

The manual also listed several keys to successful disposal of military installations. Among them were working cooperatively, considering community needs, and reaching agreements early in the process.

A decade later, the Navy's critics believe the service is under pressure from the federal government to limit its costs. Combined with what many see as the declining influence of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Bush administration, those pushing for a more extensive cleanup appear to be facing an uphill battle.

City council member Greg Perry represents the city on both the Restoration Advisory Board, which meets monthly to discuss the Navy's efforts, and the Northeast Mountain View Advisory Council, a citizens group that deals with Superfund issues at former industrial sites near residential areas. He said that silicon chip manufacturers and other private companies responsible for the pollution there have a better track record than the Navy of responding to community comment.

Perry cited the companies' replacement of devices known as air strippers after an outcry from residents that the giant vents were sucking TCE out of the ground only to spew it into the air.

"I can think of nothing similar the Navy's done," he said. He added that because the Navy is a federal agency, the city is less capable of holding it accountable to the community.

Spokesperson Lee Saunders said the Navy has dual responsibilities, acting as "stewards" of taxpayer funds but also as caretaker of federal government property. The emphasis, he said, is "providing the maximum value for each dollar spent."

Navy officials and some members of the restoration board say the Navy deserves some credit for what it has done to date. The Navy's actions include the removal of underground storage tanks that were leaking fuel, asbestos removal, painting over the toxic exterior of Hangar One and installation of two "pump-and-treat" systems to clean contaminated ground water.

Don Chuck, a former Navy cleanup manager at Moffett who now works for NASA, thinks the Navy's motives aren't as genuine.

"They want to get out of the bases, that's their main goal," he said. "If they can find a quicker way to get out of their liability, they'll look for it."

E-mail Jon Wiener at [email protected]

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