California Slated to Receive Asbestos Cleanup Funds

In December, President Obama signed a defense-funding bill that would allot $3.2 million to clean up and reclaim land around California’s Mount Umunhum near San Francisco. The area previously hosted Almaden Air Force Station from 1957 to 1980, a site that was home to many operations that left toxic wastes in the water and soil, including asbestos from abandoned buildings and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

The federal funds are believed to be only a small fraction of the estimated $11 million required to fully reclaim the land. Rudy Jurgensen, a spokesman for the current owners of the site, the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District, said that his office would coordinate fundraising efforts to bring in the remainder of the funds needed to start the project.He stated that the efforts would also include approaching local, state and federal agencies for grants and low-interest loans.

Congressman Mike Honda, a Democrat who represents the district and led the charge for the funding on Capitol Hill, said that the cleanup project would start as soon as officers from the Army Corps of Engineers begin to develop a plan to remove the asbestos, lead paint and other toxic materials from the site. The Corps had previously surveyed the site to determine the levels of the various harmful substances present in both the still-standing structures and the surrounding soil and groundwater supplies.

According to the congressman, plans are already underway to tear down more than eighty structures on the site, including former officer housing, enlisted men’s barracks and a Cold War-era radar station known as “the Cube”. Congressman Honda also said that he would pursue another $800,000 in federal funding to cover the costs of the demolition. However, no mention was made on how the project would cover the costs of asbestos remediation and removal, nor were any timelines for the completion of the asbestos abatement efforts.

The radar station, erected in 1957, was used primarily as part of the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) to oversee and intercept potentially hostile air traffic in northern California. During the base’s construction, workers used many materials that are now considered too dangerous or toxic. Many of the structures, including some of those used to house base personnel, used asbestos as insulation and fireproofing material.

The Air Force closed the station in 1980 and sold the land to the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District in 1986. The district was created in 1972 to create and preserve open spaces on public land in the San Francisco Bay area. Until recently, the land around Mount Umunhum contained such high concentrations of asbestos, waste oil and other toxic chemicals that area had to be closed to the public.

With the start of the cleanup efforts slated for early 2010, area officials hope to create a public park from the scenic site. Park planners have submitted ideas for jogging and hiking trails that will allow visitors to enjoy the view from the top of Mount Umunhum, which spreads from the downtown San Francisco skyline to the waters of Monterey Bay, within the next two years.