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April 01, 2005

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Publication Date: Friday, April 01, 2005

New life for Hangar One? New life for Hangar One? (April 01, 2005)

Navy will study interior toxins

By Jon Wiener

Months of public pressure may have saved Mountain View's largest landmark from demolition.

Navy officials confirmed this week that they have agreed to investigate toxic pollution inside Hangar One, bowing to regulators and community activists who had criticized the agency for trying to shirk its responsibility at the closed military base.

The Navy met March 17 with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Regional Water Quality Control Board, the two agencies with jurisdiction over the site, now owned by NASA.

Only a month earlier, the dispute over the cleanup of PCBs and lead -- contained in building materials dating back to the Great Depression -- looked bound for Washington, D.C., a result of the first formal dispute process to take place in the more than 10 years since Moffett closed as a Navy base.

But the meeting went well, and in a letter sent the following day, Navy base closure manager Laura Duchnak wrote to the EPA, "Our primary goal is the same, to protect human health and the environment."

The decision does not mean the Navy will conduct a full cleanup or even that the building will ultimately escape demolition, but it does indicate the Navy will consider all the available options. EPA officials described themselves as optimistic and encouraged about the agreement. Navy spokesperson Jill Votaw called it "a good news story all around."

The Navy spent $2 million in 2003 to paint over the exterior of the 200-foot-tall blimp barn, temporarily sealing in chemicals that NASA workers had found to have migrated to a polluted drainage pond. But the discovery of toxins inside the hangar forced the closure of the Moffett Museum and is threatening plans for the $380 million SpaceWorld Hangar One, an interactive theme park complete with a roller coaster.

This is environmentalists' second major victory at Moffett in the last four months. In December, NASA made plans to turn part of its drainage pond into a tidal marsh, after several years of pressure from Save the Bay and other groups.

Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight and an expert in national clean-up fights, called the agreement a step in the right direction.

"Clearly, the fact that everybody was unified on the other side made a difference," he said. But he cautioned that until a solution is found that makes a full cleanup possible, "any victory's going to be a hollow victory."

Because the hangar is so rare -- it was built in 1933 to house the world's largest zeppelin, which shortly thereafter sunk into the ocean -- nobody has a solid estimate of the cost of a full cleanup. Votaw said the cost of all alternatives will be made available to the public.
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