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 Brownfields: Post-Industrial Alameda Tour


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Tour Stop 9
Building 163 - NAS Alameda
Pacific and Central Avenues


Historical Property Use

Constructed in 1893, the Pacific Coast Borax company operated along Alameda's western shoreline until approximately 1930. Built along the rails of the Pacific Coast Railroad and using its own wharf to deliver coal, it was the largest Borax Refinery in the world at the time and reportedly one of the first reinforced concrete buildings in the United States. The Borax produced by the plant was widely used as a household cleanser and as a preservative by the meat packing and export business.

The decision to close the refinery appears to be based on the exhaustion of the Death Valley mine and relocation of refining to Southern California in 1930 following discovery of a new source of ore. Following closure the Refinery building was dynamited.

Perhaps the oldest building at the Alameda Naval Air Station and the only one constructed of red brick, a small remnant of the Borax Refinery remains in operation today as an aircraft overhaul facility.


Environmental Concerns

The environmental concerns associated with the Borax Refinery include the physical plant (fuel storage for boilers, etc.) and maintenance activities (painting, equipment repair) and the potential that these activities left petroleum, asbestos, or lead contamination.

Around 1894, the refinery processed approximately 6,000 tons a year of brown colored rock, the borate of lime, which was shipped by rail from Calico, in San Bernadino County. The rock was pulverized to a fine powder and then mixed with the carbonate of soda and placed in a steam digester. The digester operating under heat, pressure and agitation caused a chemical reaction to take place which produced a valuable product in solution-borax, and a solid waste product-calcium carbonate. The solution from the digester was drawn into a large number of tanks where the borax crystallized on tiny steel rods. The refining process was repeated to obtain the desired purity of borax.

The refinery also produced a large amount of mineral wastes and process waste water. The method of disposal of these materials is not known. The process description indicates that these wastes would have limited toxicity. Trace amounts of other minerals and metals in the ore processed, as well as the shear volume of solid wastes produced, indicate that impacts to the environment at the disposal locations of these materials may have occurred.

It appears that the Navy exhumed these wastes and used the calcium carbonat solids as rip-rap along the seawall and seaplane lagoon. The demolished borax refinery building appears to be used as rip-rap on the south-end of Encinal High School.

The small remnant of the refinery, Building 163, was identified during Navy occupancy as being used as an industrial chemical supply warehouse. The potential for environmental impacts at this property were evaluated as part of a parcel by parcel environmental baseline survey. High levels of gasoline, diesel fuel, carcinogenic solvents and beryllium metal were found in soils and groundwater. During removal of fuel lines a buried white powder was noted to the west of building 163 which may be borax or soda ash.

Current Property Use

In 1996, the Alameda Parks and Recreation Department developed a soccer pitch at Main Street and Atlantic Avenue on a portion of the former borax refinery site. This property was added to the Navy's toxic waste cleanup program in 1998.

The Parks Department reportedly paid $450,000 to lanscape the field . Unfortunately, grasses are highly intolerant to low levels of boron in the soil. As a result, the Parks Department paid to re-sod the field in the summer of1999 to replace the wilted turf.

The Parks Department does not have the expertise to develop parks on brownfield sites or to make grass grow under toxic conditions. Paying $500 for some simple boron soil tests would haveprevented a half-million dollar lesson in bad brownfields development.

The remainder of the Borax Refinery is located in an area that is proposed to be zoned light industrial under the preferred alternative of ARRA's reuse plan.

City's Pride Navy's Pride
City of Alameda's Brownfield Storage Yard US Navy's Brownfield Storage Yard

Site Statistics

DEVELOPER: Alameda Reuse and Redevelopment Authority

ACREAGE: 4 acres

INVESTIGATION STATUS: Environmental Baseline Survey Complete

CLEANUP STATUS: No site specific cleanup proposed at this time

COST OF ASSESSMENT AND REMEDIATION TO DATE: less than $20,000 (estimate)


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© 1999 Clearwater Revival Company
October 8, 1999