Bergstrom's Toxic Clean-Up

The Military Takes PR Lessons Before Town Meeting

By Karen Heikkala
November 1991; pages 6-7, 9; Volume 3, No. 2
Bergstrom's Toxic Clean-Up

Bergstrom Air Force Base's toxic clean up effort, now into its eighth year, will finally be opened for public scrutiny and comment on November 4th, at the LBJ Library from 7-10 pm. The Bergstrom effort began in 1983, when the Department of Defense initiated a world-wide operation designed to identify and clean up environmental problems on its bases. The military has kept the operation under a tight wrap, and only this summer has the national press reported on it. Despite articles in The New York Times and Newsweek this past summer, the Austin press has utterly failed to localize the issue.

At next week's meeting, Bergstrom personnel will solicit the public's concerns and comments on the base's environmental record before it's projected closure and reuse. Bergstrom's public-relations office claims that the military will take citizen's input seriously as it redrafts its new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on reuse options.

The low key publicity for the event, however, does not bode well for its effectiveness. Austin's own Environmental Affairs Department had heard nothing about it until Polemicist called them, and asked that we pass the word along as we worked in our story. In preparation for the upcoming meeting, Polemicist asked the Public Affairs Officer at Bergstrom to outline the current clean-up effort there. While he tried to appear helpful, he could not reveal any public information. "It's not that we don't want to talk to you. It's just that we have to make sure it's o.k. to talk to you."

Apparently the Colonel in charge of the clean-up is out of town. And where is he? At a two week training designed to teach military officials how to deal with the public about their clean up efforts. The colonel will be in PR training until two days after their public meeting on the 4th is over.

Watching the Waste

Pentagon officials and Bergstrom personnel have assured the city that they will clean up any known environmental problems, as well as any unknown problems discovered after they leave. Lenny Siegel, military coordinator of the National Toxic Campaign, however, notes that "the Federal government's track record for cleaning up is uneven around the country. Rather than always clean up sites, they sometimes have contained them, or covered them up. The bottom line is for citizen's groups to know what's out there and hold them accountable."

And there's plenty to scrutinize at Bergstrom AFB. According to Bergstrom's initial Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on Proposed Base Closure, put together back in 1983, the Air Force identified 27 active, or potentially active areas with hazardous materials spilled or buried. Yet, in its more recent study, Bergstrom claims that only seven sites need cleaning, although it does not explain exactly what it has done with the rest.

The original study's sites included pipelines to radioactive sites, and containers and spills of petroleum fuels, solvents, radium, and pesticides. (See table below for all 27 sites.) Since Bergstrom started recording hazardous material disposals only 15 to 20 years ago, there are likely to be more old chemical spills and gasoline plumes still undiscovered. Furthermore, until this month, Bergstrom had been on the EPA's Resource Conservation and Recovery Act "significant non-complier" list, reserved for polluters that ignore continual warnings about storage tank maintenance and hazardous material handling practices. According to Samuel Coleman of the EPA, it is a status reserved for high-priority violations.

Behind Closed Doors

In August of 1990, Newsweek exposed the military's toxic disposal practices. It pointed out that "the military produces more tons of hazardous waste each year than the top five U.S. chemical companies combined." And it went on to call the Department of Defense, "America's most pervasive and protected polluter."

According to Newsweek, the military has for years enjoyed exemption from many of the environmental laws which regulate other hazardous-waste-producing industries. They have dumped carcinogens, acids, solvents, heavy metals and other toxic materials into carelessly constructed landfills and pits, and brushed off investigators. Protected by law from adequate enforcement measures, military officials easily covered up their reckless contamination throughout the seventies. The pleas of state agencies and environmental groups were largely ignored.

With the adoption of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980, State agencies began to gain some leverage over the Department of Defense in order to enforce their environmental regulations. But according to Jennifer Yezaek, an aide to Senator Benston, the law has been the focus of legal disputes, and it never in fact gave states the right to fine federal facilities for non-compliance. In late October, the Senate passed its own version of the Federal Facilities Compliance Act, intended to put some teeth into CERCLA. The new law will effectively allow states to levy fines against federal facilities that violate EPA regulations, if it makes its way through the final committee process.

CERCLA regulations instituted some military clean-up. The Department of Defense (DoD) did establish its own program in 1983 called the Installation and Restoration Program (mentioned above), which calls for a three phase process for identifying and restoring potentially contaminated sites. But, in traditional military fashion, officers have failed to inform the general public about this major project.

Indeed, not until this summer did news of this operation, the biggest engineering project DoD has ever undertaken, reach the pages of The New York Times.The department has promised to identify all hazardous sites strung out across their 25 million acres of land holdings and promised to remedy the situation. As of August 1991, says The Times, DoD has investigated 17,500 sites and identified 11,000 in need of restoration, and is still looking. To date, the Pentagon's Office of Inspector General estimates the cost could eventually be $100 billion to $200 billion, including the foreign bases.

The Money Trail

Despite these vast commitments to environmental spending, Friends of the Earth estimates that environmental spending for military bases for the fiscal year 1992 will actually be closer to $2.876 billion. Testing and monitoring sites is very expensive. The Times points out that drilling a well to take samples of polluted groundwater can cost $200,000. One soil sample can cost $500-$5,000.

In 1983, the Air Force identified 27 active, or potentially active areas with hazardous materials spilled or buried. Now they report many fewer, but its not clear whether the sites have been cleaned.

Ironically, many of the contractors who helped create the mess are getting rich on the spoils. Bechtel National Inc., which built military installations for years for the government is now gelling much of its revenue from helping to clean them up. Raytheon Co., famous for the Patriot missile, is also looking at opportunities in the expanding market. Military-industrial officials told The Times that "the scattered environmental offices were not sharing information well, were suffering at times from duplicated efforts, and might not be supervising research or contractors closely enough. Unless such problems are corrected, they said huge sums of money could be wasted."

Walker, Haydell and Associates Engineering Firm is on contract to retest the sites that have been identified as toxic, including Bergstrom. Radian is also under contract with Bergstrom. Engineers dug several test wells and continue to monitor them, and have removed pesticides from an evaporation pit. So far, although they appear to have declared several sites "clean" and cleared them from further study, it is not clear how much cleaning has been completed. The public meeting will provide us with the space to ask exactly what we get and how much we pay for it.

Rivers of Jet Fuel

Bergstrom's phase-one study found 27 sites that needed attention. By the release of a phase-two Installation and Restoration Program study, enacted by Radian Engineering in 1989, the number had dwindled to seven. Field inspection documents clearing the other twenty sites were unavailable for Polemicist review. Many of the sites which remain on the list involve jet fuel and gasoline spills that have soaked into the ground or drained into Onion Creek. Here is a list of the seven remaining sites:

  1. In 1975 2,000-8,000 gallons of jet fuel spilled at site JP-4 and none were ever recovered. Groundwater samples contained carcinogenic chemicals. Soil samples found an organic vapor plume existing beneath tanks and appearing to be migrating southeast and southwest.

  • A jet fuel pipeline leak left contaminants like benzene, xylene and chlorobenzene in groundwater nearest the low point drain.
  • Although no contamination appeared in soil or groundwater near the Jet Engine Test Cell Facility, contamination levels rose well above EPA maximums in a well approximately 400 feet from the site.
  • Bergstrom technicians have removed pesticide sludge from the Pesticide Evaporation Pit and steam-cleaned it, but they have not assessed the impact on the groundwater.
  • At the Motor Pool, groundwater showed traces of the principal constituents of gasoline, and in the South Fork Drainage Ditch itself analysts found Benzene in the surface water as well as other high priority toxic pollutants in the stream sediment. However, because the ditch is merely a pathway for contaminants, Bergstrom decided to discontinue study of this site.
  • Five contaminated landfills had customarily been used for waste disposal from all the industrial and residential base operations, and Air Force officials don't know if the landfills were constructed with liners on the sides or bottoms to prevent seepage. Wastes include "high-priority pollutants such as tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethene" - which are both carcinogenic. A field inspection by the City's Environmental and Conservation Services Department notes that "past practices were to push debris piles as close to the drainageway as possible, creating abnormally steep slopes adjacent to the creeks."
  • Bergstrom AFB occupies most of the upland recharge area to an alluvial aquifer that is separated from the deeper Edwards aquifer by a clay stratum, known as the Taylor marl. Discharges from Bergstrom flow via the South Fork Drainage Ditch into Onion Creek, or settle into the aquifer. Onion Creek, a high-quality aquatic life water supply (under Texas Water Commission standards) and a recreation area, receives approximately 70% of Bergstrom's runoff. In addition to petroleum hydrocarbons, the Radian study detected lead (known to cause mental impairment in children) and selenium, (linked to brain damage) in the creek's surface water and sediment.

    An estimated 650-900 gallons per month of jet fuel apparently drained into this ditch prior to 1982. Though the Lower Colorado River Authority staff have been testing Onion Creek water since 1982 and state they have found nothing alarming, Radian evidence suggests that problems remain.

    Pockets Full of Oil

    One of the central threats to groundwater quality is Bergstrom's elaborate system of 74 underground storage tanks and the 25 above ground with a petroleum fuel capacity of 3 million gallons. The Texas Water Commission regulates the underground tanks, and Bergstrom oversees the raised tanks. In addition there is a 6,000 gallon underground tank that collects rinse water from paint stripping, considered a hazardous waste due to the heavy metals contained in it and the solvents used in the stripping process.

    Radian tests showed high concentrations of total petroleum hydrocarbons in soil and ground water in a number of different sites. Where detected, rates ranged from over 500 parts per million to 6,200 parts per million. The City of Austin calls for remedial action when total petroleum hydrocarbons are greater than 100 parts per million.

    Charles Finch, Texas Water Commission's field inspector for the last three years notes, "Those numbers are high, but Bergstrom is getting better. Compared to the number of underground tank violations they had in the last three years they have cleaned up their act considerably."

    Texas Water Commission documents of 1990 show that past violations included negligent handling of their hazardous wastes, keeping unmarked drums of unidentified pesticides and explosive wastes for long periods, maintaining storage vaults without linings, etc. At one point, the base sent 35 hazardous rinse water shipments to Texas Industries, Inc. to be used as slurry in cement.

    Now, technicians in Bergstrom's restoration program have narrowed their hazardous sites down to 5, excluding the South Fork Drainage Ditch and the evaporation pesticide pit from rehabilitation, according to the Walker, Haydell and Associates report. As already noted, the field inspection documents claiming them clean were not available to the public, and in fact the city admits that no one has really established the permanent environmental impact of these many years of solvent and fuel spills. Although the Walker is conducting further tests through well monitoring and soil samples, "the magnitude of effects on fauna, flora, and water quality where the aquifer discharges is unknown," the Walker report states.

    The Airport Developmental Director's office reports that the city staff is currently creating a master plan (yet another in a time-honored Austin tradition) for Bergstrom's reuse as a city facility/airport. The city hopes that the base will be closed by 1993. However, according to staff, the master plan may or may not require the city to oversee environmental protection and renewal of the sites. The master plan will take 15-18 months to complete, and by next fall it will come before the City Council. If Austinites want to ensure that the cleanup abides by Austin water standards, then concerns about toxics must be pressed before any Council decision.

    As Austinites make clear to City Council their commitment to water quality in the western hills, they must now decide whether to also fight for the quality of Onion Creek and its surrounding area. As the base closes, Del Valle will find itself much closer to Austin than before, and the Onion Creek area will be a prime target for development. New residents and old need clean water and safe recreational areas. Come to the meeting and ask the questions that will enable Austin to use this new facility safely and well.