"Air Force bypasses state to build radioactive dump"
2013-09-17 by Katharine Mieszkowski and Matt Smith from "Center for Investigative Reporting" [http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Air-Force-bypasses-state-to-build-radioactive-dump-4820111.php]:
A sign warns of radioactive material around large piles of dirt contaminated with radium at the former McClellan Air Force Base near Sacramento, Calif. The Air Force is moving forward with a plan to build a dump on-site, even though state regulations don't allow such waste to be disposed of in California. (Photo: Randy Allen, Center For Investigative Reporting)
If Air Force official Steve Mayer is bothered by California's refusal to inherit the radioactive waste dump he's building outside Sacramento, he doesn't show it.
He's plowing ahead with plans at the old McClellan Air Force Base to entomb soil contaminated with radium-226, a glow-in-the-dark substance that can cause cancer, and pass ownership of it to the city of Sacramento.
The California Department of Public Health has made it clear that state laws don't permit the move. Even if they did, Sacramento's city manager says he wants nothing to do with the dump.
But Mayer's playing the long game. By 2019, when the military wants to hand over the dump to the city, he's hoping he won't have to deal with the current crop of state regulators and city officials balking at his plans.
"There will be a different governor then, too, and (regulators) all work for the governor," said Mayer, the Air Force's remediation program manager for McClellan.
Mayer's position highlights an escalating clash between military officials and local communities that could affect former bases being converted for civilian use around the state.
Outside Sacramento, the Air Force is bypassing state environmental regulations as it cleans up McClellan, saying the former base is on federal land. Mayer said local and state officials' objections won't stand in the military's way.
"They have their right to their opinion, and we have ours," Mayer said. "We'll continue to go forward with our plans."
Contaminated sites -
There are seven Cold War-era bases in California where radioactive waste has been an ongoing concern. At the former Hunters Point and Treasure Island bases in San Francisco, for example, the Navy has fought with regulators for years over the military's obligations to remove radioactive soil in preparation for civilian development.
Just northeast of Sacramento, the former McClellan Air Force Base is now an industrial hub with an airport.
The federal government closed McClellan in 2001 as it shrank the military's footprint post-Cold War. As the military does with other shuttered bases, it is passing McClellan to local hands for redevelopment. But officials need to find a home for contaminated soil to finish the job.
For years, the Air Force has tried to make this dirt somebody else's problem.
In 2011, the Air Force argued that waste of the type at McClellan could be buried in California. Gov. Jerry Brown's office rejected the assertion.
Since then, the Air Force has persuaded Idaho, which has weaker standards than California on radioactive waste, to accept about 43,000 tons of soil from McClellan.
Now, the Air Force is moving forward with its latest plan to simply build its own permanent home for the contaminated dirt on the former base.
Firefighter training -
It's estimated the dump, which can hold 360,000 cubic yards of soil, will cost the Air Force $20 million. If it were forced to dispose of the dirt out of state, the cost would be between $125 million and $200 million, according to the Air Force.
The Sacramento Fire Department has operated a training facility on the base next to the landfill site. Once the dump is completed, the Air Force hopes to transfer it and the training facility to the city of Sacramento.
Sacramento wants the training facility, but not the dump. City Manager John Shirey said the dump's inclusion is a deal breaker.
"The United States government just has to accept that it didn't take very good care of a lot of land on a lot of military bases and will have to be responsible for cleaning it up," he said.
The state Department of Public Health can block the transfer of the landfill into civilian hands by refusing to issue a license or exemption to a new owner. In a statement, the agency said the radioactive waste dump will make it impossible to transfer the land to the city.
But state policy does not apply to land such as McClellan as long as it remains in the Air Force's hands, state regulators say. State authority begins once attempts are made to move the land to local control.
No change of plans -
Mayer said the state regulators' objections would not change plans to transfer the land in 2019. He contends that the decision to pour radioactive waste from various spots around the base into a single dump will save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars over shipping it to another state. He said the dump would be safe, a position backed by federal environmental officials.
But California health regulations require that radium-contaminated soil such as McClellan's be disposed of only in facilities certified to hold that type of material. None exists in California.
Mayer acknowledged that the Air Force could end up stuck with the dump. When asked if that would undermine the congressional mandate to repurpose the entire base for civilian use, he conceded it did.
"Yes," he said. "Our mandate is to transfer the property."