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Water pollutant warning came 10 years ago

John Geluardi Daily Planet Staff
Tuesday November 28, 2000

The vice president of WRE Color Tech, who is responsible for the chrome 6 plume beneath the partially-constructed West Berkeley Skate Park, is curious about why the site at Fourth and Harrison streets was chosen for the park. 

Construction of the park, adjacent to a new soccer field – not in use during the winter months – was halted Friday. 

In 1990 Bill MacKay, vice president and part owner of WRE Color Tech, an engraving company, went to city officials and alerted them about a storage tank on the company’s property, contaminated in the 1980s from chrome plating. Since that time, the company has spent nearly $1 million cleaning up and monitoring the contamination. 

“We went to the city in 1990 and have worked with them every step of the way,” MacKay said. “We have an obligation here.” 

Among other uses, chrome 6, or hexavalent chrome, is an odorless chemical used for hardening steel and making paint pigments. The compound is commonly used in aeronautic manufacturing and in electroplating shops. 

Chrome 6 is a carcinogen, made famous in the film “Erin Brokovich.” It is hazardous when inhaled or ingested. There is no evidence that there is a risk of human contact in the Harrison Street plume. According to county and local agencies, the effected groundwater is not used as a water source for any purpose. Tests are still being conducted to determine if the soil excavated for the skate bowls is contaminated. 

For MacKay, the first step in cleaning up the property was to hire Secor International, a Concord-based environmental engineering company, to test the extent of the problem. Then he worked with the city to find the best way to remediate the situation.  

It was decided the clean up would be carried out in three phases. The plan was to first address the plume’s source and then take care of the plume. 

The first phase was to remove the tanks from which the contaminants were leaked into the soil. The second phase was to remove soils around the tanks and around any pipes, most of which were beneath a six-inch concrete slab, that may have carried contaminated liquids. The third phase would be cleaning up the contamination that had reached groundwater. 

After the first two phases were completed in 1999, WRE had spent approximately $750,000 and there was still the 700 foot plume of contaminated groundwater to deal with. 

In 1996 MacKay hired Stellar Environmental Solutions, a Berkeley company that had experience remediating chrome 6 contamination. The company began keeping information gathered from wells sunk at various sites around the plume in order to monitor the toxicity and direction in which the plume was moving.  

In 1997 it was decided by Berkeley’s Toxics Management Division, based on information provided by SES, to pursue a non-aggressive cleanup plan. Once it was determined the contaminated groundwater was not coming in contact with humans and would not unless there were excavation projects over or near the plume, it was decided to let the chrome 6 naturally convert to chrome 3, a safer form of chromium. Chrome 6 is known to convert over time to chrome 3 when it is left in the ground, city officials said. The plan was given five years to show progress. 

“This is a big plume,” MacKay said. “It wasn’t feasible to be more aggressive with remediation because of the size and the city agreed.” According to Richard Makdisi an environmental engineer with SES, the contaminated water had been showing signs of improving according to the five-year plan. 

Geoffery Fieldler, a hazardous materials specialist with Berkeley’s Toxics Management Division, said WRE and MacKay have been cooperative at every step of the process.  

Under a risk management plan, MacKay agreed to continue monitoring the plume and provided information, compiled by SES, to the city every six months. In addition he agreed to provide “De-watering” for any projects that required excavation in the plume area – pumping the water into holding tanks. Monitoring the plume cost WRE another $150,000. With the cost incidentals and one de-watering project MacKay estimates WRE has put in $1 million. 

MacKay said he was never notified about the excavation at the skate park as he should of been according to the Risk Management Plan. 

“We want this thing cleaned up. The expertise and attention we’ve put in trying to fix what we’ve done shows that,” MacKay said. 

In fact, it was MacKay who brought the potential hazard to Makdisi’s attention, who in turn alerted Fielder of the Toxics Management Division. Makdisi and Fielder took tests the following day that showed contamination at the construction site. 

The history of the plume and the city’s extensive knowledge of it raises many questions about how the skate park, which required excavation, was approved. Makdisi said the city has received reports on samples taken from a groundwater monitoring well 40 feet from the skate park site that has been showing signs of chrome 6 contamination on a regular basis since November of 1996. 

Nabil Al-Hadithy, supervisor of the Toxics Management Division said there were a number of tests done on the 6.4 acre site prior to the development of the soccer field and skate park but chrome 6 was never detected. 

Several officials, however, have admitted there was no testing done specifically for chrome 6.  

Lisa Caronna, director of Berkeley’s Parks and Waterfront Department, said she was completely unaware of the chrome 6 plume in the area. 

Acting City Manager Weldon Rucker and Deputy City Manager Phil Kamlarz did not return phone calls before press time.