by Lenny Siegel

In late August, 2001, the Navy withdrew its proposed plan for the remediation of the wetlands areas - known as Site 25 - of the former Moffett Naval Air Station, in Mountain View and Sunnyvale, California. The Navy, with support from U.S. EPA and the Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board, had proposed a "cleanup" based upon limited excavation and institutional controls. Instead of removing, treating, and/or containing the pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and heavy metals in the wetlands sediment to allow for unrestricted use, the Navy proposed restrictions on the wetlands to permit the establishment of less stringent remediation goals. Only the most contaminated areas were to be excavated.

The Site is now managed to collect stormwater runoff from Moffett Field and NASA's Ames Research Center - which took over the airfield when the Navy left - with dikes and levees preventing tidal flow from the adjacent Stevens Creek and the nearby San Francisco Bay. The Navy proposed institutional controls to prevent tidal flow. Without tidal flow, there would continue to be few or no fish in the stormwater retention pond. With no fish in the pond, there would be no pathway for fish-eating birds to take in bioaccumulating contamination. Without the resulting risk, more contamination could be left in place.

The local community, which has supported tidal restoration in other Bay marsh areas, mobilized to oppose the plan. Starting with the Moffett Field Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), we built a consensus to call for the development of cleanup alternatives which would allow tidal restoration. We also figured out that the Navy could not legally impose its institutional controls upon the 55 acres of the pond owned by a locally elected agency, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District. As the Navy and the regulators go back to the drawing board, we are urging an integrated approach to remediation and ecological restoration.

The campaign to consider new alternatives for Site 25 is a textbook case of community organizing in federal facilities cleanup. Back in 1992-93, the Federal Facilities Environmental Restoration Dialogue Committee used Moffett Field as a model for public participation, and it remains so today. In addition, the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, with the support of a U.S. EPA Technical Assistance Grant, has provided technical assistance to community members of the RAB.

Many RAB members and other community activists across the nation are frustrated when government agencies don't heed their advice. But RABs are merely mechanisms for developing and advancing the community's will. The Site 25 campaign illustrates how a RAB can be successful as part of a broader community strategy.

RABs - particularly with the aid of independent technical consultants - can help communities influence cleanup decisions by:

  1. helping to identify problems, solutions, and priorities
  2. offering the opportunity to communicate directly with decision-makers
  3. creating a venue for developing community consensus
  4. establishing credibility
  5. determining what leverage the community has over remedy selection and other decisions

The Moffett cleanup program, from the start, focused upon the contamination of groundwater with trichloroethylene and other contaminants. Next, the remediation of former landfills became a major concern. The Navy also studied and remediated a number of sites where soil contamination posed a potential threat to human health. Appropriately, the evaluation of the wetlands area, with minimal human exposure, came late in the process, in the mid-1990s, with the "station-wide ecological assessment."

The first inkling of the Site 25 controversy came at a RAB meeting nearly three years ago, when the agencies reported that they intended to revise significantly upward the allowable levels of polychlorinated biphenyls in the wetlands sediment, because under the current water management scheme, fish-eating birds - the indicator species was the great blue heron - wouldn't be eating fish from the contaminated areas.

Some of us questioned that decision, stating that tidal marsh - complete with fish and the birds that eat them - was a likely future use of the property. There were also extensive discussions over the methods used to establish allowable levels of contaminants to protect wildlife in the wetlands. With the help of our technical consultant, we learned the details of both site contamination and possible cleanup approaches.

Following criticism from the regulators, the Navy agreed to address heavy metal and pesticide contamination in the wetlands, as well as PCBs. But neither the Navy nor the regulatory agencies listened to community concerns about tidal restoration. In fact, some expressed doubt that we spoke for our community.

Early this year, the Moffett Field Cleanup Team - Navy, EPA, and Water Board - announced that it had reorganized the "station-wide" operable unit, creating Site 25, and it reported that it was planning to propose limited excavation backed by institutional controls.

About that time, activist RAB members started meeting with other environmental groups in the area, including Save the San Francisco Bay, Peninsula Conservation Foundation/Bay Area Action (now knows as Acterra), and the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. We explained the complexities of the Moffett cleanup, and we found that these groups agreed that it was important to preserve the opportunity for tidal restoration.

Also, we continued discussing the cleanup with representatives of our local governments, the League of Women Voters, and our Congresswoman's office. Building consensus with other members of the community was not difficult, since we've been working together, on the RAB, for many years. We weren't hurt by the fact we had elected friends to the two city councils as part of the successful community campaign against the use of Moffett by air cargo companies. (See Lenny Siegel, "Fighting City Hall and the Federal Government, and Winning: The Moffett Field Experience," February, 1998, at http://www.peo.org/pubs/mofle.html.)

When the agencies released their draft Proposed Plan in April, the environmental groups drafted a resolution calling for a cleanup recognizing tidal restoration as a reasonably anticipated land use. Local cities, the League of Women Voters, and the Congresswoman all endorsed that position, though some developed their own language.

As the process unfolded, we maintained contact with the press, primarily the daily San Jose Mercury News and the weekly Mountain View Voice. It was clear that our detailed knowledge of the situation, enhanced by years of RAB meetings, established our expertise. Both publications attended a tour of Site 25 that we led along the Stevens Creek levee.

In August, when the public hearing on the proposed remedy finally took place, more than 50 community members attended. Actual attendance was not overwhelming, but those who spoke represented two cities, influential environmental and community organizations, and other members of the community. About 25 community members spoke. Each appeared to understand the issue. Each was on message. And they all agreed.

Backed by our Congresswoman, I felt we had a reasonable chance of forcing the cleanup team to evaluate additional remedies, but due to our careful research, we didn't have the opportunity to find out. We had a trump card.

The imposition of institutional controls requires the agreement of the property owner, and the cleanup team was proceeding under the assumption that the Navy only needed the assent of NASA, the owner of a majority of Site 25. Surprisingly, due to turnover at all three agencies, none of them realized that the Open Space District, a long-time advocate of tidal restoration, also owned a large chunk of the pond. In fact, the Open Space District had never received notification of the Navy's activities, not even the sampling which occurred, without permission, on its property.

When we questioned the authority of the Navy and the regulators to impose the controls on District property, they were caught by surprise. They quickly arranged to meet with District officials, and within a few weeks they had withdrawn the proposed plan.

Given the existence of the trump card, was it necessary to organize the community? I believe so, because in the absence of community support the Open Space District might have caved to pressure from the larger agencies. Furthermore, the future of the Moffett wetlands is far from resolved. It will take political pressure to get NASA to consider tidal restoration and to help bring in new funds for both cleanup and restoration.

Is there always a trump card? Both with Site 25 and the air cargo debate mentioned above, we came up with strong legal arguments why the federal agencies could not do what they proposed, arguments that their own staffs were apparently unprepared for. I doubt that such trump cards are always hidden in the deck, but it's worth seeking them out. That means collecting information, asking questions, and putting two and two together.

The community at Moffett Field successfully blocked an what we considered an inadequate cleanup plan for the Moffett wetlands, and we're working for a better alternative, one that may integrate cleanup with ecological restoration. Our community is perhaps better educated, more empowered, and more active than others. Not everything that works here will work elsewhere. But the Moffett experience once again illustrates that communities - particularly when they participate in advisory boards and obtain independent technical help - can take on powerful agencies, and win.

(In addition to his role as Executive Director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, Lenny Siegel is an officer of the grassroots Alliance for a New Moffett Field and a member of the Moffett Field Restoration Advisory Board.)