The City Council adopted an emergency item on its Tuesday evening agenda, approving $100,000 for the immediate removal of groundwater contaminated with the carcinogen chromium 6 discovered at the west Berkeley skate park construction site.
Though city officials are saying the contaminant poses no health risks, Berkeley’s Hazardous Materials Supervisor Nabil Al-Hadithy requested the council take the emergency action so the city can immediately treat and dispose of the polluted groundwater. The emergency funds were approved unanimously by the council.
Pending results from a private toxicologist, the city is yet to determine if work will be allowed to continue on the skate park at the corner of Fourth and Harrison streets. On Wednesday afternoon workers were landscaping the area around the skate park.
The skate park is located next to the recently developed Fielding Soccer Field which is used by the Alameda Contra Costa Youth Soccer League. When the toxin was discovered the soccer fields were closed down for work on the fields and are not scheduled to reopen until February.
Groundwater from the site is being pumped into 20,000 gallon portable water containers. Once the containers are full they are hauled away by a private company which filters the chromium 6 from the water. The cost of hauling each container is $14,000. Currently one container per day is being hauled away.
“We thought is was only going to cost $7,000 per container,” Al-Hadithy said. “But there were some complications and now it costs twice that.”
The containers are a short-term emergency solution. The city is negotiating with several companies which specialize in on-site treatment facilities to handle the groundwater there and release it possibly into a storm drain if the levels of chromium 6 can be satisfactorily reduced.
“The other option is closing up the hole and discontinuing construction on the site until the problem can be otherwise remedied,” said Al-Hadithy
The source of the contamination is suspected to be Western Roto Engravers Color Tech on Sixth Street about two and half blocks from the construction site. Al-Hadithy said the contaminant is part of a plume which originates at the engravers and has been carried by groundwater to the west in the shape of a tear drop. The plume is estimated to be about 700 feet in length. The Berkeley Toxics Management Division has known about the plume for at least two years and has been working with the engraving company to take care of the problem.
Stephen Hill, the chief of the Toxics Clean Up Division at the Regional Water Quality Board said the company responsible will likely be charged the clean up costs. “In California we have a polluter pays policy,” Hill said. “We fully expect them to pay for the clean up and if they fail to do the work we’ll refer them to the attorney general.”
The final cost to clean up the area could be $500,000 or possibly much more.
There was no one available to answer questions at the engraving company on Wednesday.
Chromium 6, or hexavalent chrome is an odorless chemical put to a variety of uses including hardening steel and making paint pigments. It is commonly used in aeronautic manufacturing and in electroplating shops.
Medical experts say chromium 6 is a carcinogen in numerous animals and humans that should not be present in water at all. However, both federal and state governments classify chromium 6 as a carcinogen when inhaled but not ingested through drinking water.
According to city officials between 1.3 and 2.1 milligrams of chrome 6 has been detected per liter of tested groundwater.
Al-Hadithy stressed that there is no “path of exposure” connecting the chromium 6 to humans. The written discussion presented to the council said the groundwater is not potable and there are no ground wells in the area. The discussion also said the toxin “should not pose any human health impacts.”
But it is unclear if the toxin has found its way into the soil that is being excavated and thereby becoming airborne and creating a greater risk of inhalation. Al-Hadithy said a private toxicologist is studying soil samples from the site and should have the results by early next week.
It was only last Thursday that Berkeley’s Toxics Management Division discovered chromium 6 in water being pumped out of excavation sites at the park that are intended to be skating bowls. The nine-foot deep bowls have been filling with about a foot of water since a drainage system was installed beneath the site weeks ago.
Al-Hadithy said the toxics management personnel had a meeting with the engraving company to discuss more aggressive measures to clean up the plume and decided it would be a good idea to test groundwater being pumped from the nearby construction site. When the toxin was discovered the toxics division took immediate action to contain the groundwater.
When the city purchased the property from U.C. Berkeley two years ago it spent $25,000 on environmental tests to satisfy the requirements of a Environmental Negative Declaration that showed the site was safe. Groundwater was drawn from three random locations on the 6.4 acre site and none showed the presence of chromium 6.
The city also relied on tests that were performed by the university which declared the site was safe.
Two councilmembers, Diane Woolley and Kriss Worthington voted to not approve the declaration at the time. Worthington said they thought there had not been enough tests done and that the proponents, who primarily associated with the soccer league, were very anxious to get the field approved.
He added that it was a very unpopular stance for him and Woolley to take. “They thought we were being obstructionist, but what we were doing was making sure that our efforts to help the kids wouldn’t hurt them.”