Los Altos outpost languishes in toxic limbo

Local environmental officials are due to decide today whether to increase pressure on the federal government to conduct long-awaited site cleanup at the Almaden Air Force Station, which open-space leaders hope to restore and connect with the 17,000-square-foot preserve surrounding it.

The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District purchased the 35-acre station in 1986 for $260,000 but is still waiting for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clean up toxic materials on the site before turning it into parkland, according to district spokesman Rudy Jurgensen.

The AirForce used the station and its massive radar tower, near the peak of Mt. Umunhum in the Santa Cruz Mountains, to detect enemy aircraft from 1958 to 1980.

Twenty-nine fuel tanks and 52 transformers containing PCBs were removed from the site between 1994 and 1996, according to Jim McAlister, project manager with the Corps. However, since then the site was de-prioritized for soil testing and any further cleanup.

Toxic materials, including lead paint and asbestos, remain on the site, District Manager Craig Britton said.

The district’s board will vote today whether to spend $50,000 to hire the Ferguson Group, a lobbying firm that would urge legislators to set aside money for cleanup at Almaden, according to Britton.

“[The Corps] said they weren’t responsible for anything above-ground, which included the lead paint and asbestos,” Britton said. During the long years of waiting, “the paint has flaked off and become part of the ground, so we think that maybe what was not part of their problem is now their problem.”

Meanwhile, the Corps is waiting for permission from nearby landowners to enter the site and perform additional soil and groundwater tests, according to McAlister. Testing could take two to three months.

“When we get the results we’ll know how much more we need to do,” McAlister said.

The regional budget for cleanup of formerly used defense sites, or FUDs, is $10.5 million in 2008. That money is distributed throughout Northern California and large swaths of Utah and Nevada.

In the meantime, the open-space district is seeking public comment on its plan, which would create trails and bike paths connecting the Almaden site to the Sierra Azul Open Space Preserve once cleanup is complete. Three workshops were held last year, and an open house will be held this fall to provide updates, Jurgensen said.

The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District meets tonight at 7 p.m. at 330 Distel Circle, Los Altos.

Facts and figures

» Name: Almaden Air Force Station

» Years of operation: 1958-1980

» Largest staff: 120

» Size: 35 acres

» Location: Mt. Umunhum, in Santa Cruz Mountains, 3,489 feet high

» Cleanup to date: 29 fuel tanks, 52 transformers removed in 1990s


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