AFD policies sorely lacking; NBC11 interview; Clean-up contract

June 9, 2009

I’m deep into discerning just what we are getting for the $500K we pay our fire chief and fire marshal. It’s made me a really bad blogger. As much as I wish it were otherwise, this will continue.

I’m committed to restoring faith in the AFD, uphill slog though it is. So far I’ve discovered this: We’re not getting our money’s worth in terms of planning and policies that fit the island we live on. We’ve got the kind of policies that work well for a sleepy little burg of say, 4,000 people, policies that are dangerously inadequate for the bustling city of 80,000 that we are.

The latest: I just picked up the policies and procedures for the Alameda Fire Department. I requested and the policies and procedures about 2 months ago, and it was quite a saga: first the city attorney delegated the matter to fire marshal, Michael Fisher, who delayed, then I made another request and Fisher said the documents were ready for me to pick up, then sent another email said the city attorney was reviewing them. Huh? Finally, last week Fisher told me I could come pick them up.

After all that, I assumed I’d be getting a thick stack of documents. Nope: 11 double-sided pages, most of it tortured logistics about which apparatus responds to what area of the island, and everybody’s call handle. The most absurd and tedious micromanagement I’ve yet seen in a policy, and I’ve seen plenty.

Of particular interest to me were the procedures for a 3 and 4 alarm fire and those for a hazardous materials response. I was interested the the 3 and 4-alarm fire response because firefighters from San Francisco have called the FISC fire a 3 or 4 alarm fire. If you watch the video of the fire, I think you’d have to agree. My interest in the hazardous materials (hazmat) response policy is because of the asbestos, lead and VOCs (fuel contaminants) in the FISC building.

The 3 and 4-alarm response policy
There isn’t one. That’s right: No such thing as a policy for a 3 or 4-alarm fire. This goes a long way toward explaining why the response to the FISC fire was so inadequate: The AFD was utterly unprepared for a fire and hazmat event of this severity.

Instead, there is the following: You’ve got your unit response (1 apparatus), your limited response (1 engine and 1 truck) and your full response (3 engines, 2 trucks 1 ambulance and the duty chief). You got your Second Alarm response for structures (1 engine and 1 ambulance) and for vegetation (2 engines and the duty chief). You got your special call response (request for 1 additional apparatus). But you got no policy for a 3 or 4-alarm fire. Which says something truly frightening to me:
The AFD has not done any thinking or planning about the kinds of fires that can – and did – erupt on the former Naval Air Station site. Talk about a failure of imagination, leading to a lack of planning, leading to the 19-hour toxic bath we received on March 29th. And Alameda Landing and Alameda Point are full of toxics – 5 superfund clean-up sites on the FISC property alone – just waiting to catch fire and bathe us again. And, when they do, the AFD won’t do any better. They don’t know how. The city and the fire department have not taken this threat seriously, have not planned, have not trained. They are unprepared, putting themselves and all of us at risk.

The hazmat response policy
There is one! There is a level 1 hazmat response, defined as “a release or potential release with no immediate threat to life or property, small contained quantities, 42 gallons or less (sic) of petroleum products.” For that, they send 1 engine. Well, OK. Except: 42 gallons of petroleum products does not represent an immediate threat to life or property? I think the AFD has been inhaling. You’ll also notice the same failure of imagination operating here: What about the burning of petroleum products? It’s as though this had never occurred to them. The burning of petroleum products – which are, you know designed to burn – hadn’t occurred to the fire department.

See, here’s what’s bothering me. I’ve read the Navy’s remediation report. In addition to being a fabulous cure for insomnia, it’s chock full of petroleum products. Really – the Naval Air Station is lousy with petroleum products, mostly fuel. (That’s your quickest route to becoming a superfund clean-up site, should you be interested: get yourself some fuel.) So, you’d think – I’d think – that the AFD would be very interested in imagining the possibility of all those petroleum products – all that fuel – burning. And, after the imagining, there would be a great deal of planning. There’s a name for this: Disaster planning. For an island, you’d think – OK, I’d think – this would be, uh, you know, really important. Especially an island with a huge, largely abandoned and neglected toxic waste zone with all that fuel, yearning to burn.

Fair is fair though: There is a policy for a level 2 hazmat incident. For that you get 3 engines, 1 truck, 1 ambulance and the duty chief. The incident commander decides whether to call the County Fire HazMat Response Team. Then, “At all incidents in which a hazardous materials emergency has been confirmed, the following agencies shall be notified.” Did you get that? When someone decides it’s an emergency, then someone calls all the agencies in. Just when we need someone to be in charge, when we most need the policy to point to a person, it uses the passive voice. It’s no one’s job to decide there is a hazmat emergency!

Of course, the incident commander is the one who requests the County HazMat team, and surely the policy gives s/he receives firm guidance about making that call. Here’s the exact wording: “A level 2 hazmat incident is all other concerns (sic) greater than a Level 1.” Clear as mud and twice as helpful.

NBC11 takes an interest
Last week, Kris Sanchez contacted Denise and I about running a story on the aftermath FISC fire. She interviewed each of us and a videographer shot some footage and it was a pleasure to experience such professionalism.

Not sure what’s happening with the story. Seems to be suffering from the same lack of focused public outrage as the FISC fire – and the threat of toxic fires to come. Baffling to me.

FISC Clean-up Contract
The city website has posted the contract for the FISC clean-up, which has already been reported in the Sun or the Journal, I can’t recall which. $1.6 million, the vast majority of that for the asbestos and lead contaminated debris and the rest for the many meetings required to monitor the clean-up. Which brings me to my favorite part of the NBC11 interview. Kris asked me about the discrepancy between the expensive, carefully controlled, 1.6 million dollar toxic clean-up on the FISC site and the advice we got about cleaning up the very same debris in our yards (it won’t hurt you: use a wet paper towel!). “Doesn’t that bother you?” she asked.

Yes, Kris, it really does.


Where we go from here

May 8, 2009

I’ve been away from this blog for a bit, and away from this topic. The taste in my mouth is still here. No one seems especially interested – not my doctor, nor the agencies we pay to be interested. There is a completely logical reason for this: No one knows what dangerous levels are for exposure to the toxins generated in the fire.

Sure, they have the levels that are considered acceptable, the levels and the chemicals that we are all exposed to everyday from car exhaust or local industry. The thinking here seems to be: If we are all breathing this stuff, then it must be OK. Syllogism rather than science.

There is the accepted notion that asbestos is dangerous no matter what level of exposure. Except, when you dig into this, you find that some types of asbestos and levels of exposure were exempted from regulation under the Reagan administration. Why? Because it was being used so many places. And, it still is: building materials and brake pads are only two of the many we are exposed to daily. That’s how the deadliest toxin got mainstreamed. Denial: it’s not just a river in Egypt. It’s how our federal government made decisions that haunt us still.

And, of course, they have clear evidence of what lethal exposure is, because when someone dies of chemical exposure, it happens fast and there is a corpse. Problem is, they have no idea – none – of when a chemical goes from probably OK-to-live-near-for-awhile to this-exposure-will-shorten-your-life.

Between the two poles of denial and syllogism, there is an enormous gray area that only science can map. Without that information, no one can make sense of toxins that show up in blood or urine.

Let’s focus on our emergency response instead

Still outstanding for me is the failed response of the Alameda Fire Department. I’m trying to be kind and forgiving about it, but it’s difficult. It was a chain of bad decisions, made by firefighters that are among the highest paid in the Bay Area. At the very least, we are not getting value for our money.

That needs to change. That’s the new focus of this site. I’m still waiting for the critique of the FISC fire, still waiting for a copy of the AFD’s policies and procedures which, I understand, are decades old. The city attorney forwarded my request to the AFD, who is “gathering the documents I requested.”

It seems the AFD can’t response to anything properly.

A strange taste in my mouth

April 27, 2009

I mean this literally: I can’t shake this brackish taste in my mouth. If anyone else is experiencing this – or if you know someone who is, please get in touch by leaving a comment below. I won’t post them, so your privacy is safe.

I’m not trying to raise a false alarm here, but some of the chemicals we were subjected to for 19 hours can cause this. To get specific, the chemicals the BAAQMD tested for and found the highest concentrations of are: Benzene, MEK, MBTE, and 1, 3 butadiene and acrolein.

I’m very hopeful the strange taste in my mouth is from something else. I’ll keep you posted.

Please let me know. Thanks.

Asbestos superfund site: Libby, Montana

April 25, 2009

The documentary film, Libby, Montana, details how an entire community became contaminated with asbestos, was lied to by the company responsible, blown off by the EPA, designated as a superfund site, blown off by the EPA, and devastated by asbestosis and asbestos-related cancers like mesothelioma.

The story
WR Grace operated a vermiculite mine in Libby for 70 years, knowing that the vermiculite it was mining was grossly contaminated with asbestos. Town residents used it in their gardens as fertilizer, stuffed their attics with it, made wall board with it, paved their schools and preschools with it, and even baked cookies with it.

WR Grace managers and execs were generous to the community and woven into its civic structure – on boards, active in the city government, and in the community. They were considered good neighbors by Libby residents and warmly welcomed for decades. The entire time, they knew that asbestos was toxic. They knew.

The typical scenario
Dad works in the mine, comes home covered with dust, his kids hug his legs and breathe the dust, his wife washes his clothes and breathes the dust. The kids grow up to have kids who play on the asbestos-containing playground at the pre-school and even though the mine has been closed for years: voila! All three generations in a family have asbestosis and slowly suffocate to death.

Company doctors lied to employees about why they were having trouble breathing. Only when employees were seen by independent doctors and given death sentence diagnoses (asbestosis, mesothelioma) did residents begin to suspect their betrayal. They sued. WR GRace declared bankruptcy. The feds caught them hiding their assets offshore and overturned their bankruptcy protection.

In 2004, seven executives of the WR Grace company were indicted for endangering the lives of their employees.

Their asbestos-containing insulation, called Zonolite, is estimated to be in 30 million homes across the US.

The people of Libby struggled for years to obtain healthcare benefits and to get their homes, yards, schools, pre-schools and parks cleaned up. Because of the generosity of the WR Grace company, asbestos had been build, sprinkled or paved into everything: playgrounds, attics, parks, gardens. They are still struggling.

More asbestos facts
The infrastructure for regulating asbestos production and distribution and for enforcing what standards do exist has been watered down to the point of uselessness starting with the administration of Ronald Reagan.

Mesothelioma was inaccurately reported as lung cancer until a year ago.

In the book Anticancer, A New Way of Life, lung cancer is one of the cancers the author lists as “epidemic.” I’m finding it a helpful book, full of solid research and simple strategies you can adopt to protect yourself from developing cancer.

I’m just sayin’.

Friable vs. non-friable asbestos

April 24, 2009

I got a letter from Ann Marie Gallant today, responding to my certified letter demanding an asbestos clean-up of our fair city. She assured me that the city had taken its time responding only to make sure they weren’t giving us bad information. To that end, the city “consulted with representatives from various regulatory agencies in addition to its own environmental expert regarding environmental conditions at Alameda Point and FISC.” All this was necessary before they could post info on their website. Fair enough. She wanted me to know if I wasn’t comfortable with the disposal instructions the city provided, I could call them and have them come and get the debris on my property. Kind of her to reach out.

Except, it rather misses my point, which is this:

1. Fire disturbs the building material that contains asbestos, and frees it to float in the air and travel for hours after all the other dust and debris has settled. Fire makes non-friable asbestos friable, and sets it in motion, where it can give and give, for years.

2. The sample from Denise’s yard that contains 10% asbestos in non-friable form isn’t proof that all is hunky-dory, it’s an indication that what burned had asbestos that was released into the air and traveled for miles.
I’m not making this up. Here’s a quote from

“When non-friable asbestos becomes friable, it is not the asbestos itself that crumbles, but the building materials in which it was used. As clay or other minerals age and wear, they break down and release the more-durable asbestos fibers. Burning any ACM, such as wallboard, asbestos papers, or ceiling tiles also releases asbestos fibers and changes the classification to friable and regulated.

I’m going to make this extremely simple for our friends at city hall: The roof contained asbestos. It burned, and for 19 hours. As it burned, the asbestos in the roofing material was freed to travel freely and insinuate itself everywhere.

Asbestos can’t be destroyed. Every time there is dust kicked up, you get another hit.

Below is the entire section from
Friable vs. Non-Friable Asbestos or Asbestos-Containing Material (ACM)

The legal definitions of “friable” and “non-friable” asbestos clearly depicts the differences between dangerous and safe asbestos-containing materials (ACMs).

* Friable ACM is any material that contains more than one percent asbestos by weight or area, depending on whether it is a bulk or sheet material and can be crumbled, pulverized, or reduced to powder by the pressure of an ordinary human hand.
* Non-friable ACM is any material that contains more than one percent asbestos, but cannot be pulverized under hand pressure.

Materials are slightly more confusing within the classification of non-friable ACM:

* Category I non-friable includes asbestos packings, gaskets, resilient floor covering, and asphalt roofing products.
* Category II is any non-friable ACM not included in Category I.

The difference is which non-friable asbestos materials are “Regulated Asbestos Containing Materials” (RACMs). The legal definition covers:

* All friable ACMs,
* Including category I non-friable asbestos materials that have become friable as the other materials in them have broken down with age and weather.
* Category I non-friable asbestos materials that will be, or have been, subjected to sanding, grinding, cutting, or abrading.
* Category II non-friable asbestos materials that have a high probability of becoming or have become crumbled, pulverized, or powdered by the forces expected to act on the material in the course of demolition or renovation operations.

Any asbestos-containing material can become friable and fall under federal regulation. A material falls under federal regulation when the level of danger becomes too high for someone to be around it.

Friable asbestos is dangerous because it releases toxic fibers into the air. Breathing in these microscopic mineral fibers is what makes people sick, even though symptoms may not show for decades. The longer a person is around asbestos fibers, and the more fibers there are in the air, the more likely one will become debilitated or die from them. No one has been able to identify a safe level or period of asbestos exposure, so federal regulations are aimed at protecting everyone in the United States from as many airborne fibers as possible.

The fibrous or fluffy spray-applied asbestos materials found in many buildings for fireproofing, insulating, sound-proofing, or decorative purposes are considered friable. Pipe and boiler insulation found in numerous buildings is also considered friable, though it may be fairly well contained by other fabrics, tape, paint, or plastic.

When non-friable asbestos becomes friable, it is not the asbestos itself that crumbles, but the building materials in which it was used. As clay or other minerals age and wear, they break down and release the more-durable asbestos fibers. Burning any ACM, such as wallboard, asbestos papers, or ceiling tiles also releases asbestos fibers and changes the classification to friable and regulated. Cutting or drilling them, especially with power tools, will also release fibers. Anything done to building materials that may raise dust will cause dangers if the materials contain asbestos. Once released, the asbestos fibers are light enough to hang suspended in the air for hours and days, long after other dust from the project has settled.

It’s a month after the fire, and no one in charge thought to test for asbestos either in the debris or the air. The city’s reassurances ring hollow to me.

First, the good news…

April 24, 2009

I went rooting around the fire site this morning, looking for stray fire debris to add to my collection. What I found instead were:

1. FERMA employees watering everything in sight to keep toxic fibers and dust from getting airborne.
2. The asbestos tape now extends beyond the burn site and into the field just outside the burn site where kids have been seen playing in the past.
3. FERMA employees combing through that field and picking up the debris.
4. A little blue box hanging from the fence around the perimeter of the site. It’s an air monitor. A FERMA employee told me the entire site is full of these devices, and they’ve been coming up clear since they were installed. The workers wear them as they work.

Air monitoring - FISC sit

Air monitoring - FISC sit

It seemed like quite a professional operation. I feel relieved that the pros are handling this and seem quite up to the task.

Bigger perimeter around FISC fire

Bigger perimeter around FISC fire

Now for the rest of the news
I walked over to the superstructures for the Webster and Posey tubes. Unfortunately, still plenty of fire debris there, even a month later. As I walked alongside the Webster tube there was more debris the closer I got to the daycare center, on both sides and for several football fields worth of space.

FISC fire debris - 6" piece

FISC fire debris - 6\

Daycare center surrounded by fire debris

Daycare center surrounded by fire debris

Inside the perimeter, FERMA employees with gloves on, bagging and tagging the debris. Outside the perimeter, plenty of debris, some of it near a day care center.

So, as great as the expanded FERMA perimeter is, there is still quite a bit of city-owned land that needs to be cleaned up. I can’t help but wonder: Is there anyone besides Denise and I who care about this?

Just like 3 days in the Caldecott Tunnel

April 23, 2009

I’m looking at the results of the air sample the BAAQMD took on Monday, Match 30. 2009, the day after the FISC fire.  This means the chemicals they measured had already dissipated quite a bit.  One of them, 1, 3 butadiene is expected to reduce to “normal” level of 0.15 to 0.3ppb in a couple of hours according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website.

That’s how quickly it evaporates. Which makes it all the more striking that, 24 hours after the fire had been put out, levels of 1, 3 butadiene were still astronomically, horrifically, dangerously high at 60.1ppb

And the effects of breathing “high levels of it for a short time?” Birth defects in pregnant women. And, “central nervous system damage, blurred vision, nausea, fatigue, headache, decreased blood pressure and pulse rate, and unconsciousness. There are no recorded cases of accidental exposures at high levels that caused death in humans, but this could occur.” As if that weren’t enough, “the Department of Health and Human Services has determined that 1,3-butadiene may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen.”

That wasn’t the only chemical in the BAAQMD report. The report is supposed to be available in the city’s website, but the link doesn’t work. Shocking, I know. It compares the levels of various toxins in the environment to those in the Caldecott Tunnel. The levels of all the substances the measured are 2-5 times higher than in the tunnel, so breathing the smoke from the fire is roughly like hanging out in the Caldecott for 3 days straight. Not that anyone would do that. Of course not. Unless the fire department decided for you, as the AFD did for us. on March 29th.

I’m looking at another document too. It’s page one of the Renovation Agreement between PM Realty Group (the owner/operator of the FISC building) and FERMA, the contractor that is going to tear down the building.

It’s a contract for removing 50,000 square feet of friable asbestos. Friable asbestos is the airborne, dangerous kind.

Funny thing about the BAAQMD test results: there’s no result listed for asbestos. That means, they didn’t test for friable asbestos, even though there’s 50,000 square feet of it awaiting removal at the FISC site and it’s considered one of the most toxic substances known. They didn’t test for lead either, even though there are many chips of it all over the island.

Seems odd to me.

More online press

April 21, 2009

Another website has picked up the article in last Friday’s Alameda Journal:

That means our little island is becoming part of the national database on asbestos and the lung disease and cancers associated with it.

There’s quite a bit to learn about asbestos and how often we are exposed to it.  Today, I found out that Kent cigarettes, who used to boast about their proprietary micron filter – do you remember the ads? – was using asbestos in those filters.  Really – they were using asbestos to protect you from the effects of smoking tobacco.   It would be funny if tobacco and asbestos weren’t such a deadly combination.  From what I understand, that combination is always fatal

It’s as though no one is minding the store.

The city of Alameda would probably prefer to be nationally famous for almost anything other than asbestos contamination.  Instead, our city will achieve national prominence because of an stunning cascade of civic negligence.

Asbestos tape, FERMA Corp and wet paper towels

April 20, 2009

* Please look at this entire post as the action steps are at the bottom. *

Here are the latest images of the FISC burn site. sometime between the first pictures I took on April 5th, and posted on this site on April 9th, and yesterday,  DANGER: ASBESTOS tape has been placed all around the burn site.

asbestos tape on the white plastic fence

asbestos tape on the white plastic fence

The debris at the burn site is labeled DANGER:  Asbestos, while the very same debris in your yard is considered safe enough to pick up with a wet paper towel.

Does this make sense to you?


“FERMA Corporation is one of the few general engineering contractors licensed to handle and transport hazardous waste and perform toxic clean up.” That’s a quote from their website: They list Catellus as one of their clients.  Those are FERMA trucks in the pictures.

FERMA Corp came to the site immediately after the fire. I’m guessing they are the ones who put up the DANGER: Asbestos tape.  I’d like to know 2 things:

1. If the asbestos level at the FISC site was so minimal and safe, why did FERMA get called in immediately afterwards?

2. The fire debris at the FISC burn site is hazardous waste. In your yard, the same debris, once in your yard is safe enough to pick up with a wet paper towel.  Does this make sense to you?


Children are especially susceptible to asbestos contamination, being so much closer to the ground.


++ Contact the city and suggest they get someone out to all the contaminated public spaces with a roll of wet paper towels

++ Contact news outlets and demand coverage of this unfolding story

++ Contact FERMA, he city and Catellus to ask what is in FERMA’s report

Here’s the contact info for FERMA.

General Engineering and Demolition
1265 Montecito Avenue
Mountain View, CA 94043

Here’s the info for Catellus in Alameda

Sean Whiskeman

(510) 267-3424


April 19, 2009

I didn’t have my camera, so I can’t show you the picture, but asbestos warning tape is all around the site.

Good thing the city isn’t concerned and recommends using a wet paper towel to pick up the debris that fell in your yard. The exact same debris that the experts have cordoned off with tape saying: DANGER: ASBESTOS.

Yeah, I feel better.