Vital Alameda Point wetlands are slated for costly and unnecessary destruction without scientific support.
Most Alamedans have read about the Navy’s plan for upgrading and expanding wetlands at Alameda Point where a regional park is planned. Unexpectedly, however, and behind closed doors, a single advisory staff member at a state agency halted the approved wetland expansion plan. He did so as work was already underway, and over 7,000 truckloads of soil had been delivered to upgrade the site. The controversy centers on the health risk that radium-226 luminescent paint waste artifacts may or may not pose to park visitors.
Rajiv Mishra, the supervising health physicist in the California Department of Public Health – Radiologic Health Branch (CDPH-RHB) told the Navy and other regulators during a July 2020 meeting that a wetland above any area that might contain radiological material is not allowed. This assertion turned out to be not true.
Wetland destruction will cost millions
In a response to our inquiry about the rationale for eliminating the wetland plan, the Navy and three regulatory agencies—the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the California Department of Toxics Substances Control (DTSC), and Regional Water Quality Control Board—disputed Mishra’s claim, stating, “There are no ARARs [Applicable or Relevant and Appropriate Requirements], regulations, or policy guidance that state a wetland is unacceptable.”
But that was not the end of the matter. Since the Navy and other regulators need unanimous consent on cleanup plans, Mishra’s binding advisory role to DTSC essentially gave him veto power, so he was able to compel the Navy to agree to a special and more costly radiological scanning standard for the wetlands that would’ve been expanded from 10 acres to 15 acres. The 15 acres were to be excavated to three feet, with clean imported soil used to create new wetlands at the original elevation. The Navy and regulatory agencies said that this new scanning standard would raise the cost for the entire cleanup project from $25 million to $46 million if the existing wetlands were expanded as originally planned. Thus, the Navy decided the on-site wetland plan had become financially infeasible.
Navy’s defense of the change
In the yet-to-be-signed draft Record of Decision issued in September 2021, in which the Navy now proposes to cover the wetlands with soil and mitigate the loss at another location, the total cost is pegged at $35 million because $15 million of that number is earmarked to pay for off-site wetland mitigation. None of this makes any rational sense, especially when there are no regulatory guidelines mandating special scanning standards at the base of a wetland.
The Navy and the regulatory agencies justify the ad hoc higher standard by stating, “If wetlands were mitigated on the soil cover…the development and maintenance of deep-rooted wetland vegetation could be problematic as it may create a potential exposure pathway to residual contamination.” While it is theoretically possible for radium-226 to be absorbed by plants, the degree to which this might occur is completely dependent on local soil conditions, the type of plants allowed to grow, and the extent of the contamination, according to a study on radium in soil that relies on an EPA study.
No evidence for radium-absorbing plants
These Site 32 wetlands at Alameda Point have been sitting there for 65 years with no evidence showing that this phenomenon of wetland plants absorbing radium has occurred. In fact, the extent to which artifacts such as paint brushes and rags from the radium dial-painting shop might or might not exist more than one foot below the surface is unknown. Surface scanning equipment is accurate only to a depth of one foot. And while numerous soil samples were taken at varying depths, not enough tests were taken to characterize the soil under the wetlands or anywhere else on the site below one foot. The few items discovered during scanning events, such as a toggle switch and a glass vial, have been removed.
No analysis of soil conditions and the potential for plants at this location to absorb radium has ever been performed, as recommended by the EPA.
Plan already avoids deep rooted plants
Mishra’s predecessor at the agency, senior health physicist Roger Lupo, was fully aware of the plan that was being vetted in the 2017 Remedial Investigation and Feasibility Study for Site 32. This document formed the basis for the subsequent choice of the plan now being killed. Lupo commented that he was concerned about deep-rooted vegetation potentially absorbing radium, not just on the wetlands, but anywhere on the site.
“There is a potential of deep rooted indigenous plant species to rupture the geotextile cover [plastic rodent barrier installed under the three feet of clean soil] and compromise the overall integrity of the soil cover,” Lupo stated in the 2017 study. “Deep rooted plant species should be avoided to minimize plant uptake of any radionuclides that may remain in the site.”
Deep-rooted plants like trees already are prohibited as a matter of standard policy on a soil cover, regardless of what’s underneath. Shallow-rooted plants like grasses that were planned for the site, on the other hand, create a vegetative soil fabric that controls erosion.
Mishra’s concerns are overzealous
There are no special health and safety regulations pertaining to radium-226 and wetlands. The only standard for evaluating radiological risk at this cleanup site or any other Superfund site is the one promulgated by the EPA. The EPA guideline for remediation of Superfund sites with radioactive contamination recommends an exposure limit of 12 millirems of radiation per year. For comparison, a dental x-ray is 3 millirems of radiation.
The human health risk assessment performed in the 2017 study concluded that the current conditions, as is, pose no risk to a future park visitor. The reason for adding three more feet of soil is that one foot of soil is not considered a permanent barrier because of erosion potential.
Exposure to radiation in wetland plants was not part of the conceptual site model on risks to future recreational park visitors and groundskeepers. The risk consultant plugged in the following parameters to the federal and state-approved risk program to evaluate risk to a park visitor: A person would visit the site one hour a day, 75 days a year, for 30 years. The potential increase in cancer risk from radium exposure was one in one million under the current conditions.
The consultant then added the two-foot soil cover proposed at the time, which has since been increased to three feet. With the soil cover in place, the risk program said that protection of visitors increased by two orders of magnitude. Two orders of magnitude is 100 times greater. Thus, the radiological risk to visitors under the original plan with expanded on-site wetlands is statistically non-existent.
Citizens want answers, lack agency and government support
Members of the citizens’ oversight panel for environmental cleanup, the Restoration Advisory Board, are demanding answers. In December 2022, three members sent a letter to the Navy and regulatory agencies asking that the signing of the Record of Decision be held in abeyance until new data and updated health and ecological risk assessments are provided to support, or not support, the decision to destroy the wetlands.
Meanwhile, the two agencies that will one day own and manage the land, the City of Alameda and the East Bay Regional Park District, have declined to raise any concerns with the Navy. The City has also declined to question the decision to cancel the previously approved plan for wetlands expansion. Back in February 2022, Sustainability and Resilience Manager Danielle Mieler told a Restoration Advisory Board member: “We share your concern about the loss of wetlands in the Northwest Territories. This is one of the reasons we are working on De-Pave Park as a way to keep wetlands on Alameda Point. It may not replace all 10 acres, but it will help. We are working with the Navy and RWQCB (Water Board) to explore a way to replace some or a majority of the acreage on Alameda Point, but talks are preliminary at this point.”
However, De-Pave Park was added to the city’s redevelopment plans in 2014 as a way to increase wetlands at Alameda Point, not to provide a mitigation site for lost wetlands.
The East Bay Regional Park District, which is slated to operate the future regional park, has also been unwilling to question the halting of an in-progress wetland expansion. Carol Johnson, Assistant General Manager for Public Affairs, said that the park district trusts the regulatory agencies to do the right thing. “We rely on the technical expertise of the State and Federal regulatory agencies to ensure the remediation is done to an appropriate standard and that any resource impacts are avoided, minimized, or mitigated fully,” Johnson said.
The Ecological Risk Assessment in the 2017 study ended with this note: “The seasonal wetlands are considered an ecological resource and removal of this resource will impact the local ecology.”
Contributing writer Richard Bangert posts stories and photos about environmental issues on his blog Alameda Point Environmental Report, https://alamedapointenviro.com/. His writing is collected at AlamedaPost.com/Richard-Bangert.