Mixed bag for Moffett makeover
Full cleanup likely at Site 25, demolition
an option for Hangar One
Publication Date: Friday,
May 20, 2005
By Jon Wiener
The Navy just can't seem to catch a break.
At several public events last week, officials
indicated that they could afford to clean
up a polluted Moffett Field wetlands area
to a level that should make just about
The next day, those same officials were
in the unenviable position of announcing
that they may have to knock down Hangar
One, an idea that did not sit too well
with long-time residents.
That's life for the Navy these days:
For every bit of good news, the bad news
is close behind.
Officials say there will be plenty of
good news in an upcoming report on the
cleanup of the wetlands area known as
Site 25. But, if last week's Restoration
Advisory Board meeting is any indication,
the bad news on Hangar One could wind
up attracting most of the public's attention.
Victory in sight for environmentalists
A full cleanup at Site 25, a polluted drainage
pond now used by NASA, looks like it will
cost the Navy millions less than expected,
bringing a pitched battle between local
residents and two federal agencies closer
At an open house last Wednesday and
a tour the next day of the polluted areas,
officials all but announced they were
planning a full cleanup at Site 25, which
was once a wetlands. The plan would remove
enough toxic chemicals to allow Site
25 to be restored to tidal marsh.
Recent cost estimates pegged the price
of such a cleanup at $5 million to $5.5
million -- about half of what officials
"It looks far more reasonable to clean
it up to the highest standard than ever
before," said Briggs Nisbet, a campaign
manager for Save the Bay, the Oakland-based
nonprofit that has led a public campaign
against the Navy.
Save the Bay's fight over Site 25 has
included a letter-writing campaign, rallies,
input from elected leaders, and more.
Last year, for instance, the group put
out a full-page ad depicting mutated
versions of wetlands animals -- such
as a clapper rail with ten legs -- along
with the statement, "Toxic chemicals
might not be the only thing the Navy
leaves behind at Moffett Field."
Rick Weisenborn, the Moffett clean-up
manager for the Navy, said the recent
public comment session was valuable and
all part of the Navy's decision-making
"If you're feelings get hurt from people
putting pictures of funny birds in the
paper," he said, "you shouldn't be in
The minimum cleanup required at Site
25, enough to protect the migratory birds
that currently water at the pond during
the winter months, would cost $3 million.
A NASA plan proposed last November to
bring fish back to part of the site,
while continuing to use it for stormwater
retention, would actually require the
most expensive cleanup at about $7 million.
"There's going to be a lot of pleasantly
surprised people," Navy clean-up manager
Weisenborn told the members of the Restoration
Advisory Board (RAB) last Thursday.
Hangar's days could be numbered
On the other hand, a not-so-pleasant surprise
could be in store for fans of Hangar One.
Navy officials have been considering
knocking down the massive landmark for
nearly two years. In response, some RAB
members and long-time residents have
demanded a commitment from the Navy not
to demolish the aging shell, however
"I fly over it every day, I love that
building," said Larry Shapiro, who owns
a private air show company in Palo Alto.
But Navy officials said they are legally
required to consider demolition.
"Our number one job is to make it environmentally
safe," said Weisenborn. He added, "The
Navy's not in the business of doing historic
Built in 1933, the 200-foot-high hangar
was made from steel that was dipped in
a series of toxic solutions, including
hot zinc, asbestos and an asphalt adhesive.
As a result of that process, chemicals
like PCBs, lead, zinc and asbestos now
make up nearly 20 percent of the building's
structural materials. By comparison,
the federal safe level for PCBs in soil
is 0.2 parts per billion. Despite efforts
to contain them, the contaminants are
continuing to flake off and leech into
the environment around the hangar.
Weisenborn explained all of this to
a stunned group at the RAB meeting, calling
the building "an existing, imminent threat
to human health and the environment."
"Well, duh, we have a problem," he said. "We're
fully aware of it, we admit it, we're
going to clean it up."
Before discovering the contamination
problem in 2003, NASA estimated that
tearing down the building would cost
nearly $30 million. After NASA found
a unique type of PCB at Site 25 and traced
it to the hangar, the Navy responded
by spending $3 million to add a heavy
coat of paint to the outside.
But the paint is wearing thin, and time
is running out for the Navy to make a
decision. Weisenborn said that continuing
to add coats of paint could cause the
building to collapse. Other potential
solutions -- sandblasting the building
or encapsulating it with shells inside
and out -- would cost a fortune and are
not guaranteed to work, he told the RAB.
"There's PCB dust all over everything," said
NASA environmental chief Sandy Olliges. "It's
in the dust, it's in the air, it's going
into the wetlands, into the environment."
That problem could worsen during demolition,
which is why the Navy is hoping to conduct
the work during the rainy season. Weisenborn
said Navy contractors are scouring the
Internet for ways that they might be
able to treat the building materials,
but so far have come up empty-handed.
The Navy has scheduled an open house
on Hangar One on June 13. A preliminary
recommendation is due on August 3, followed
by 45 days for public review. The Navy
says it will make a decision on Site
25 by September. Work on both sites should
be completed by late next year.
Future uses still in question
Whatever happens at Site 25 and Hangar
One, visions of new uses for each location
will be determined by NASA, which bought
Moffett from the Navy in 1994.
While pressure from groups like Save
the Bay may have been instrumental in
convincing NASA to back a partial restoration
at Site 25, the agency maintains that
it needs the pond to manage its runoff
during the rainy season. A restoration
project would require spreading several
feet of dirt over an area spanning 260
acres, since the site has sunk several
feet below sea level as a result of nearby
agricultural uses in the first part of
the last century.
NASA's past stance against letting the
Bay Trail go through the area -- it currently
ends at the Stevens Creek Trail just
west of Moffett -- has rankled some residents,
but a change in leadership at NASA/Ames
could signal a new opportunity for trail
"It's the next big issue," said Save
the Bay's Nisbet.
If that's the case, somebody else is
going to have to lead the fight. Nisbet
is losing her job at the end of the week
as her legendary organization scales
back its involvement in politics. The
positions of community organizer and
communications director were also recently
At Hangar One, the plans for a museum
and theme park inside the spacious structure
are going to remain only plans for at
least a little while longer. But if SpaceWorld
Hangar One, a nonprofit endeavor which
organizers once said could cost $380
million to build, does somehow wind up
using the troubled landmark as a home,
Navy officials can expect a lot of good
will from the community for their efforts
-- at least until it's time to clean
up Orion Park.
E-mail Jon Wiener at firstname.lastname@example.org
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