Air Force Clashes with California over Radioactive Waste Dump

Sunday, September 22, 2013

The U.S. Air Force has spent years cleaning up toxic and nuclear materials at McClellan Air Force Base outside Sacramento since it was decommissioned in 2011, unsuccessfully trying to ship radioactive waste to a California dump and successfully sending a bunch of it to Utah under suspicious circumstances.


But now, as it bears down on a 2019 deadline for finishing the job of scraping potentially dangerous materials from 326 waste areas before delivering what’s left of the base-turned-industrial-hub into nonmilitary hands, the Air Force wants to bury the last of the radioactive waste on the property, close to residential neighborhoods.


State regulators and the city are not happy. 


California has stricter rules governing waste disposal than the federal government and the California Department of Public Health says the plans for entombing the radium-226, a substance known to cause cancer, do not meet its standards, according to Katherine Mieszkowski and Matt Smith of the Center for Investigative Reporting


The department has the power to block transfer of the property. California law requires that only facilities with special permits can accept soil contaminated with radium, and the state doesn’t have any.


But Steve Mayer, the Air Force remediation project manager at McClellan, told Center reporters that he was prepared to wait out the city and state because by 2019, “There will be a different governor then, too, and (regulators) all work for the governor.”


Actions at McClellan could serve as a template for federal behavior at other bases in California facing similar transitions from military to civilian use. Instead of paying costly expenses to ship the material to dumps, the Air Force could simply bury it on-site and walk away. There are reportedly seven bases in California that could face similar situations.


State regulators rebuffed the Air Force in 2011 when it lobbied hard to classify its McClellan radioactive waste as “naturally occurring” so it could qualify for shipment to Clean Harbors’ Buttonwillow landfill. Instead, it sent 43,000 tons of soil to an Idaho dump.


The 3,452-acre base was named a Superfund site in 1987 owing to years of maintaining aircraft that involved the “use, storage and disposal of hazardous materials including industrial solvents, caustic cleansers, paints, metal plating wastes, low-level radioactive wastes, and a variety of fuel oils and lubricants,” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Much of the residue is believed to be from cleanup efforts related to radioactive paint used more than 50 years ago on glow-in-the-dark dials and gauges.


The property is being transferred to private hands piecemeal. In 2007, 62 acres were moved to the McClellan Business Park and another 35 acres was sold in 2011 to U.S. Foods, a national food distribution company. In 2010, 545 acres were transferred to the business park and California Governor Jerry Brown approved the transfer of another 528 acres in January of this year.  

-Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Air Force Hopes to Stick California City with Radioactive Waste Dump (by Katherine Mieszkowski and Matt Smith, Center for Investigative Reporting)

Air Force Sends Radioactive Material Too Hot for California Landfills to Idaho (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

McClellan Air Force Base (U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission)

McClellan Air Force Base (Groundwater Contamination) (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)


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