SANTA ROSA (KPIX 5) — Sonoma County has been looking for a safer place to relocate the homeless people living on the Joe Rodota Trail.
Some officials thought they had a good place in mind, but that location has now been rejected because of a problem 80 years in the making.
The spot was a county maintenance yard located near the Charles Schulz Airport. Without a lot of neighbors to object, it seemed like a perfect place to locate a new homeless facility. Until someone reminded officials about what lies beneath it.
The county’s “corporation yard” (an area designated for the storage of equipment, usually for the Department of Public Works) sits on land that was part of the Santa Rosa Army Air Field during World War II.
“We recognized that there were some buried munitions under that site,” said Board President Susan Gorin. “And we thought, ‘Oooh, that’s probably not a good site to choose from.'”
But there was more than just munitions. At the nearby Pacific Coast Air Museum, volunteer Mike Lynch said the old air base was a training facility for pilots learning to fly P-38’s that flew dogfight missions over the Pacific.
“What would happen would be some of their training is, naturally, flying. And some of it was classroom training,” Lynch said.
Some of that training involved mustard gas, the deadly poison that killed so many soldiers during WWI trench warfare. At the base, small vials of diluted gas were used to teach pilots what it smelled like.
Fast forward to the 1980s: A crew digging a sewer line discovered canisters of the gas buried under the maintenance yard. Ever since then, there has been a ban on digging in the area.
“I was comfortable that, in fact, you could, but I wouldn’t dig deeply under there,” said Gorin.
But the board of supervisors decided that was not a risk they could take with their new shelter facility and the idea of placing it at the airport site was scrapped.
The question that remains is what officials should do about the mustard gas.
When asked if the county was going to pay to have it removed, Gorin replied, “Everything is deemed safe if you simply pave it over and don’t disturb the soil.”
The county is looking for a new place to locate its homeless facility and the land at the airport will likely remain an unused corporation yard for a long time to come.
After Supervisors rejected the airport site, county staff continued working to identify other possible locations for a homeless shelter. They have reportedly settled on two locations that have not been publicly revealed, but will be presented to the Board of Supervisors at a special meeting next week.