North Island key element in the Navy's nuclear fleet

That special glow

The Navy's massive nuclear homeport project on North Island has come down to two state hazardous-waste permits that are pending before the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. One permit was set to go into effect two weeks ago but has been appealed. The other should be drafted in a matter of months.

North Island's transformation into what Pentagon planners call "the key" element in the Navy's nuclear fleet is a huge undertaking. If, as anticipated, three nuclear aircraft carriers are stationed there, the construction budget for support facilities alone could run as high as half a billion dollars; the San Diego Chamber of Commerce claims the operation could inject $2.5 billion annually into the local economy.

But the North Island nuclear homeport will also add millions of pounds of hazardous waste and thousands of cubic feet of radioactive refuse to the waste burden of the base -- which is upwind and within one mile of downtown San Diego and next door to Coronado.

The permit allows most of the new waste at North Island to be stored for at least a year; some mixed radioactive and hazardous waste could be kept there as long as ten. For the purely radioactive waste, there is no effective time limit for removal.

Because the base is a federal facility, and a military one at that, state and local scrutiny of the Navy's plans is limited. In its nuclear operations, including radioactive-waste storage and reactor operations, the Navy answers to no state or local regulators but rather to its own parent agency, the Department of Defense.

Where the state does come in involves two proposed hazardous-waste dumps -- and then only when waste is stored for longer than 30 days or is brought in from outside North Island. As a result, the permissible grounds on which objections can be made and under which outsiders can demand answers are limited.

Much of the public record can be found in dialogues conducted during state and federally mandated public hearings, in comments by outsiders who have some legal standing, and from the permit applications and supporting documentation. The facts often overlap or contradict themselves.

For instance, the federally required environmental impact statement for the overall homeporting project -- prepared by the Navy and certified as adequate by the Navy -- is based largely on the assumption that only one nuclear carrier would be based at North Island. Now, according to the Navy's latest plan, three are likely to be stationed there.

Yet, that same impact statement declared that dredging San Diego Harbor for around-the-clock access would not create any threat to public health or the environment. Two years after it was approved and dredging was underway for the larger nuclear ships, live ordnance and hazardous materials have showed up in the spoils.

The two hazardous-waste permits deal with two discrete types of waste: purely hazardous waste, that is, materials that are chemically or otherwise innately toxic; and mixed waste, hazardous waste that has been made radioactive by exposure to radiation.

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control approved the Navy's hazardous-waste permit in December of 1997. The permit had an effective date of January 4, but an appeal was filed on January 2 by two individuals and the Environmental Health Coalition, a local nonprofit group that's been operating for 18 years and has an annual budget of nearly $1 million. The health coalition was the lead plaintiff in an earlier suit against the homeporting project, which was dismissed last fall. The coalition is arguing in its appeal of the hazardous-waste permit that the state made significant errors and should rescind it. The state expects to respond within 90 days.

Should the state approve the permit, North Island will have six times its present permitted hazardous-waste capacity and will lengthen the amount of time most of the waste may remain in storage from 90 days to a year. Just as important, North Island is now able to accept a much larger volume of hazardous waste from outside the base. The new permit also nearly doubles North Island's capacity for PCBs -- substances so poisonous their use is now banned -- to some 17,000 pounds. North Island is already the sole repository for PCB wastes generated by Navy operations in the region, since it is the only Navy facility with a PCB storage permit.

The Navy facility that the new permit applies to has actually been in operation since 1992, the year it was completed. Until now, however, the storage depot was exempt from state oversight because the Navy kept wastes there for 90 days or less and didn't accept material from outside North Island.

(On one occasion, the Navy concedes, the depot did accept waste from outside North Island -- from outside the country, in fact. Several years ago, a Navy research station in Antarctica ran out of waste-storage space, and the material was shipped to North Island on very short notice. "[The Toxic Substances Control agency] ... did not pursue the waste imported from Antarctica as a hazardous-waste import activity," was the agency's response to a public comment about the incident.)

The new hazardous-waste permit brings the total capacity for long-term storage of hazardous waste to 4384 55-gallon drums, or 236,500 gallons. All of that waste could originate from other sources in the state.

Toxic Substances Control has said it won't allow 90-day hazardous-waste storage within the newly permitted facility, but it has no power to keep the Navy from simply adding 90-day storage elsewhere as needed -- as long as the waste stored there is generated from North Island.

To judge from the Navy's own numbers, that expansion will probably be necessary soon.

Even before the homeporting, North Island generated 4 million pounds of hazardous waste each year, according to the Navy's environmental impact statement. That comes to 11,904 55-gallon drums, using conservative estimates, assuming the drums are filled with materials as heavy as water. Each nuclear carrier, the Navy says, generates nearly another 550,000 pounds a year. That's 1600 drums. Three carriers plus North Island's current activity would generate over 16,704 drums a year -- nearly four times what the new permit allows.

The mixed-waste depot is small by comparison, with a 100-drum threshold under the permit. Homeporting work on the nuclear ships will generate 15 drums each year, and another 5 drums will be shipped to North Island from other Navy facilities. As a chemical/radioactive hybrid, mixed waste is difficult to dispose of. The Navy admits that there aren't enough treatment sites for all the mixed waste it generates. "Based on current schedules," it said in a May 1997 document, "treatment...should be available by 2003." In that same document, the Navy noted that some 250 drums of mixed waste generated by the nuclear propulsion program were in storage awaiting treatment at the end of 1996.

And there's a sizable federal backlog already. The Department of Energy has been forced to store about three million drums of mixed waste of its own, according to the Navy. If no mixed-waste site is found, North Island will reach its mixed-waste capacity after five years -- and much sooner than that if the expected additional nuclear carriers are berthed at the base.

The Navy sought to minimize North Island's 100-drum figure by comparing it to the nuclear propulsion program's 250 drums cited above. However, looked at another way, North Island's 100-drum permit would give it the potential to store almost half of the Navy nuclear propulsion program's accumulated mixed-waste load.

Finally, the Navy will also be adding storage for purely nuclear waste. But that, like the nuclear carriers' onboard reactors (two per ship) and the activities directly associated with them (removing and installing fuel, for instance), is exempt from any state or local oversight. The Navy has said it intends to send that waste to a private dump in Barnwell, South Carolina. However, even the Navy admits that site is good only for ten more years, at best.

The Navy has said the proposed Ward Valley site in Riverside County, near the Colorado River, will be another option; however, even the Navy admits Ward Valley cannot be relied upon. "Because the future disposal of radioactive waste inCalifornia is uncertain," a Navy document states, "it was considered prudent to plan for onsite accumulation of ten years of radioactive waste." It estimates a ten-year burden to run to 5300 cubic feet, roughly 1000 55-gallon drums.

Navy documents unearthed during the coalition's losing suit against the homeporting plan suggest the Navy has made it a policy to minimize discussion of the nuclear aspects of its nuclear homeport.

"Please don't let this one get hid [sic] behind the 'N-word' mantle and miss this opportunity for some benefits," pleads one Navy official to another regarding the need to keep San Diego port officials informed of Navy dredging plans. That was in January of 1995.

"Substituted 'NIMITZ-class aircraft carrier' for 'CVN' and/or 'nuclear-powered' throughout the document," reported Captain C.W. Chamberlain of the Pacific Naval Air Command in late '94. He was referring to the Notice of Intent for the San Diego Homeporting plan, required to be published in the Federal Register.

In that same communication, Chamberlain shows how the Navy danced around the issue of how many carriers North Island would actually homeport. "Your draft," the officer writes to colleagues in a branch of the Department of the Navy in Washington, "implied...realignment of a [nuclear aircraft carrier] to San Diego. Since the actual language said 'ships,' we thought it more correct to be specific." Chamberlain writes that his revision of the document "Provides reasoning for our change of plans -- without negating [the commander of the Navy's] homeporting plan -- by calling premature our previous consideration of homeporting 'up to three' carriers."

Chamberlain's communiqué also shows how the Navy was keeping alive the possibility of building a dry dock for nuclear carriers, which would generate substantial amounts of waste and which has been subject to minimal public examination. "We also specified the requirement in San Diego for [nuclear carrier] transient capability."

According to another Navy memo the homeporting opponents organization uncovered, the Navy carried out "research" on one Joe Bacon, of Coronado, because he "is a new name in Coronado." Bacon, who took part in public meetings about the homeporting decision, has "lived in Coronado for 10 years," the organization noted in a February 1997 letter to the Navy.

"Of similar concern," the letter goes on, "San Diego Military Toxics Campaign members...witnessed a uniformed naval captain taking down car license plates at a public hearing on homeporting at the Coronado City Council...." The San Diego Military Toxics Campaign, a consortium of groups and individuals critical of the Navy's plan, was also part of the suit against the homeport. "This kind of activity can have a chilling effect on public participation and should be stopped."

The Navy did not respond to the letter's allegation.

"The problem in Coronado is that we have a population that is a lot of retired military people, mainly Navy," says Ginna McDonough, who owns a health food store in town. McDonough, in her 40s, is a Coronadan born and bred. "They're very complacent that the Navy would do nothing to hurt them.

"I've been involved for the last two and half years," since the environmental impact statement was published, says McDonough. "At some of these meetings we've seen military personnel copying down people's license plate numbers. For what reason I don't know. I'm sure I'm on some list."

What happens at North Island extends beyond San Diego. In the post-Cold War era, explains Carol Jahnkow, executive director of the Peace Resource Center of San Diego, the Navy has been consolidating as part of an overall military contraction. "San Diego has always been the largest naval facility," she says. "It used to be the largest military installation in the free world. That concentration in San Diego is real ominous for us, because the question is going to be posed: 'They closed all these other places, where are they going to go?'

"We're being asked to bear the whole brunt."

As of press time, the Navy had not provided comment.

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