While trucks, backhoes and a dredging machine moved earth outside, anxious neighbors of the hazardous waste-filled Campus Bay project gathered with state officials Friday morning to unload some dirt of their own.
Friday morning’s gathering was intended to be the launch of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control’s (DTSC) first meeting to formulate a public participation plan—a three-month process—but the folks gathered in a second floor conference room of Kray Cabling wanted action now.
And as one drama unfolded in South Richmond, another was underway elsewhere, as lawyers for DTSC and the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board labored to hammer out an agreement that would divide the site into two parcels, the shoreline marsh under the water board and the larger upland parcel under DTSC.
While officials had hoped for a handoff within a week of the announced handover on Nov. 8, the process entered its third week Monday.
The process is complicated by dredge and fill operations now underway in the marsh under water board supervision. Polluted muck from Stege Marsh is trucked onto the upland portion and dirt stored on the upland is hauled to the march to replace the missing muck.
Community activists and site neighbors are particularly troubled that cleanup crews uncapped a portion of the 350,000-cubic-yard mound of buried contaminated soils to build a temporary home for the muck.
Appearing for DTSC at Friday’s meeting were Diane Fowler, a Sacramento-based public participation program official, Nancy Cook, who is based in Berkeley, and Angela Blanchette, the agency’s local media liaison.
“The department feels very, very strongly that when decisions are made, they are made where every voice in the community is heard through the total completion of the site,” Fowler said. “This project is a little more complicated because we are stepping in late.”
Under normal circumstances, members of a community advisory board are chosen from candidates who had turned in petitions signed by 50 or more community members, but East Bay Assemblymember Loni Hancock had requested that DTSC bypass the process, Fowler said.
The panels typically include 15 to 20 members of the general public.
As an initial step, the department will mail a survey to 7,000 area residents after Thanksgiving, with questions about languages used in the home, newspapers read, favorite radio stations, and if they would like to form a community advisory group. The mailing could also include a fact sheet and newsletter.
Once chosen, the panel produces a draft public participation plan.
Each milestone in the cleanup will be documented and advertised in area newspapers.
The key obstacle for the dozen or so citizens gathered at Kray Cabling came when Fowler said that marsh cleanup work wouldn’t stop while the public participation process is underway.
Sherry Padgett, one of the leading activists in Bay Area Residents for Responsible Development, a community group formed in response to Campus Bay development, declared that the ongoing work being conducted “is completely unacceptable.” How, she asked, could local residents and workers be certain if the work now underway is safe?
“It’s totally unacceptable,” echoed Alex Sajkovic, the owner of ASN Natural Stone, which recently moved into the area from San Francisco.
“Sajkovic likened the DTSC’s arrival into the project to a player arriving at a pool game after most of the balls had already been sunk.
“Right not there are only one or two balls left, and we’re behind the eight-ball,” he said.
“I think public participation is a detriment,” said Bourne Harris, another business owner.
“What I want is a strong DTSC as an advocate. I want a single point of contact; I don’t want a public participation process.”
“Nothing should move forward ‘til you get up to speed and pass us and are able to answer our concerns, We want a response today. We need a different kind of participation that responds to our concerns,” she said. “Two weeks ago we had 200 or 300 people” turn out for a joint Assembly hearing at the nearby Richmond Field Station. “At the next meeting, we will fill city hall.”
“The machines must stop,” said Claudia Carr, a UC professor and BARRD activist. “If not, there’ll be a blockade.”
“I’ll participate,” Harris declared.
“We’ve had plenty of volunteers,” said Padgett.
Attendees also bombarded Fowler with concerns about invisible toxins, particularly cancer-causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and raised concerns about Making Waves, an after-school program housed in a Zeneca Pharmaceuticals Building directly adjacent to the contaminated wastes.
Zeneca was the last owner of the Campus Bay site in its earlier, highly polluting incarnation as a chemical manufacturing plant before the property was sold to Cherokee Simeon Ventures, a purpose-formed amalgam of a Marin County developer and a pension fund investment firm.
Cherokee Simeon first intended the site as a biotech research facility until recession-induced industry cutbacks led them to propose a highly controversial 1,330-unit housing complex to be built directly on top of the buried toxic waste.
Contra Costa County Public Health Director Wendel Brunner wasn’t able to make the meeting, but he said Monday that he wasn’t as concerned with the current dredging operations as he was with what would happen in the spring after the muck had dried and crews moved in with tilling equipment to blend the soil with lime to neutralized the high acid content before moving it to an offsite dump.
Similar operations two years ago involving the highly contaminated upland soils resulted in massive dust clouds that spread throughout the area, destroying community trust in the process.
“The confidence of the community is understandably shattered and it’s going to take some time to restore it,” Brunner said. “Right now, the operations are relatively low risk, which provides an opportunity for DTSC to develop public participation and build some community trust. This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t be alert and questioning. They should.”
After questions were raised about the safety of the fill dirt brought in to replace the contaminated marsh muck, Brunner said he met with regional DTSC chief Barbara Cook, who has ordered thorough tests of the fill material.
Brunner also said that tests revealed that VOCs at Making Waves were currently no higher than normal Contra Costa County background readings, adding that Padgett was right to pay attention to the facility.
“The broader public policy issue is how such sites should be handled statewide. We need a statewide public policy so that all the other sites around California are handled properly,” he said. “This group has made the point that they shouldn’t have to be the ones paying attention.”