Between a Rock and a ... Rock

Environmental testing in the Presidio may be a Sisyphean task

According to ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus, son of Aeolus and founder and king of Corinth, was condemned by angry gods to eternally push a heavy rock to the top of a steep hill, where it would always roll down again.

In modern San Francisco, young environmental engineers trek around the Presidio former military base, sinking high-tech buckets into green-painted test wells, then drawing up vials of cloudy water.

The two tasks are equally tragic and equally absurd, S.F. environmentalists say. Tragic because the Army is spending money on futile testing it could better spend on cleanup. Absurd because cutting-edge environmental science has begun to challenge the wisdom of ground-water testing methods being used at the Presidio.

"Basically it's a scratch-and-sniff proposal," says Doug Kern, meeting facilitator of the community advisory board set up three years ago to monitor environmental cleanup of the Presidio. "Rather than get the contamination out of there and be done with it, they're spending money on further testing."

As is the case with all closed military bases, the Army has been charged with cleaning up ground water contaminated by decades of fuel leakage, careless garbage disposal, target practice, and other environmentally unfriendly activities. Because it was primarily a command post, without the oceans of toxic substances common to bases housing large weapons fleets, the Presidio has been left one of the country's cleanest base sites. But the Presidio's cleanup has received particular scrutiny because it is slated to be turned into an oceanside national park, complete with wetlands, cypress groves, and gorgeous beaches. People go to natural parks for a pristine nature experience, according to environmental groups and some officials with the National Park Service, and the last thing they should have to worry about is tainted ground water.

The idea of bringing an urbanlike landscape such as a military base to wilderness standards of cleanliness is fantasy, Army experts counter. The Army will release a report Monday describing plans to clean the base. Military and National Park Service experts expect the plan to reach a compromise between the Army-preferred minimum standard -- clean enough to keep picnickers from getting sick -- and the Park Service standard -- water so clean it can sustain a healthy marshland habitat.

Preliminary details from the Army report show its approach to cleanup to be misguided, says Kern. A geophysicist by training, and an environmental mediator by profession, Kern has submitted a formal complaint criticizing Army plans to leave more toxic waste in the ground than environmentalists would like. The Army plans to spend around $16 million monitoring and cordoning off landfills in some of the base's areas, when it could spend $14 million on a complete cleanup, according to Kern's complaint.

Army spokesman Thomas Appling says Kern arrived at his figures by faulty methods. Kern picked and chose among Presidio project areas, ignoring sites that were cleaned, focusing on areas where the Army plans to monitor, Appling says. This way he was able to claim that the Army is spending more money monitoring than cleaning up waste, Appling says.

Whatever the case, there exist serious questions about the effectiveness of the type of "Swiss cheese" ground-water testing engineers are conducting at the Presidio, some environmental engineers would argue. A walk around the former base reveals dozens of waist-high green posts that engineers may continue drawing samples from for 30 years.

Opponents of this approach liken ground-water contaminants to marbles in a closed box. Drilling ground-water testing wells is like punching holes in the top of the box. It's hard to tell where the marbles (the contaminants) are at any given time -- or even if they exist in a given area. "I'd hate to see someone waste their entire career out there taking ground-water samples," says one environmental engineer familiar with the Presidio project.

Perhaps. But there are worse jobs than strolling among the eucalyptus and pine groves, smelling the ocean breeze along the bay at Crissy Field, filling up sample canisters and hoisting them into a pickup truck.

"The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart," writes French author Albert Camus in his essay "The Myth of Sisyphus." "One must imagine Sisy-phus happy.

 
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