In an anonymous letter addressed to the Army and the local community late last month, military families living at Moffett Field's Wescoat Village say they have "many concerns and requests" about living above polluted soil and groundwater.
The 181-unit family housing complex -- located behind Moffett's main gate at the north end of Moffett Boulevard -- partly sits above a plume of trichloroethylene (TCE) dumped or leaked over many years by the Navy. The vapors that rise from the ground -- when concentrated in buildings -- can cause cancer from long-term exposures and birth defects from short-term exposures, among other health problems, according to EPA toxicologists.
"Many of us feel we have been living here uninformed with regards to the nearby plume," the letter states. "We worry greatly about the safety of our families and often question the possibility of toxic vapors around us and the toxicity of our soil."
"Being notified of issues potentially so dangerous should be as mandatory as having to supply the front office with the required copy of my pet's vet records to ensure they're 'safe' to be in housing," said one Wescoat resident whose post about the situation online was forwarded to the Voice. "The (Department of Defense) not being able to provide these facts is both disturbing and unacceptable. The worst part is whomever is to blame monopolizes on military families who can't afford to move, none the less live, on the economy in this area."
Military families say they receive a discount in rent at Wescoat.
Fearing conflict with Wescoat's management or the military, residents of Wescoat declined an offer for free indoor air testing. The offer came from the RJ Lee Group, a Washington-based firm that was in Mountain View last week to demonstrate its real-time air testing technology, which found five homes with TCE levels above EPA limits on Evandale Avenue. A Wescoat resident told the Voice that Wescoat residents want the EPA to test homes in the complex for TCE vapors in a way that does not single them out for a potential conflict with their commanders.
"Military people are part of hierarchical system," said Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight. "Rightly or wrongly, most of them are afraid to speak out because they could get in trouble."
In an online post, one resident expressed disappointment with Clarke Pinnacle, the contractor that manages the complex for the Army, for "having a lack of the facts to explain the circumstance. That's the rapidly growing issue."
The concerns were fueled when Wescoat's tap water recently turned brown, and residents there suffered skin rashes from bathing in it. Government officials have assured them the water is safe.
The Wescoat resident said that in an online discussion among Wescoat residents "seven different people" reported rashes from the brown tap water, which appeared March 11 through March 13.
"For some reason last night, bath water gave me a horrible allergic reaction," said one post. Another concurred, saying "Mine too! I thought it was in my head but I was so itchy and I have a bad rash on my body." Another wrote, "We're concerned, if it's affecting so many of us, if I should wash my babies' bottles or just wait. My babies are grumpy without their bath and my dishes are stacking up. I don't know what to do."
A Wescoat resident said a NASA Ames officials blamed the brown water on water main flushing. NASA supplies the former Navy base with water.
"Drinking water in this area comes from municipal sources including the Hetch Hetchy reservoir in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and is treated to meet all state and federal drinking water standards," said David Yogi, spokesperson for the EPA.
Siegel said he was not aware of any widespread or regular testing for TCE vapors at Wescoat. He said only a few Wescoat homes sit over concentrated portions of the TCE plume and pose a concern for vapor intrusion. Most of Wescoat appears to be above portions of the plume where the shallow groundwater TCE concentration are less than 5 parts per billion, according to an EPA map of groundwater samples.
"It's easy to see why people worry about the contamination," Siegel said. "If it's in the deep aquifer, there's no reason to believe it's a problem" for vapor intrusion. "If contamination were coming up from the deep aquifer, it would contaminate the upper aquifer."
Wescoat was built in 2006 with "passive sub-slab ventilation systems" designed to keep the TCE vapors from coming up through the floors, but residents want reassurance that the systems work.
"How do we know for sure that it is safe?" asked a resident of Wescoat who spoke with the Voice on the condition of anonymity. "No system is foolproof."
Yogi said information about the TCE plume had been given to Wescoat residents in a fact sheet and at a community advisory board meeting, but residents said they had seen neither the fact sheet nor a meeting notice.
"Residents at Moffett Field housing have never been told about the regional plume or that we live near or in between two Superfund sites," a resident said in an email. "Our housing has never informed us of the proximity of the sites when we signed our rental contracts. No one from the EPA has ever communicated this information to our residents nor has there ever been a community meeting offered by the EPA here at Moffet Field."
Yogi said the EPA has tentatively scheduled a meeting for Wescoat residents on April 15 at 6 p.m. at NASA Ames.