UC Staff Walk Out; Toxic Inquiry at Field Station By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Tuesday June 14, 2005

Picketers gathered outside the main gate of UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station (RFS) Monday morning—but unlike other protests there, this one wasn’t directed at the toxins polluting the site. 

Monday’s protesters were members of the Coalition of University Employees (CUE), participating in the third such walkout by UC unions since mid-April. 

Members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees held their three-day strike starting on April 14, followed by the University Professional and Technical Employees-Communications Worker of America on May 26. 

While CUE is currently negotiating with the university over a new contract, the union’s statewide steward and UC Berkeley library employee Margy Wilkinson said this week’s walkout concerns the union’s 2003-2004 contract. 

Union members haven’t seen a contract increase since October 2002, said Wilkinson, despite an independent arbitrator finding that “[t]here is no question that the university is in a position to afford a wage increase for the clerical employees.”  

Arbitrator Gerald McKay held recently that the system’s “claim that it does not have the money to spend on them is not supported by the evidence.” 

But that doesn’t mean campus unions are ignoring the toxins at the Field Station, which is slated for massive construction efforts as the shoreline facility is redeveloped as a corporate/academic research park. 


Unions seek toxin info 

Joan Lichterman, Occupational Safety and Health officer for UC Berkeley members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), said the CUE filed a formal request in April asking the university for information including names and amounts of toxic chemicals at the site. 

CUE, which represents UC clerical employees, is also asking for a list of past and present workers at the site. 

Lichterman said the union has already identified one worker who has tested positive for mercury in her system and said a second case of possible toxic exposure is also under investigation. 

Lichterman said the university had not responded to the request by last Friday and added that other campus unions are planning to file similar requests. 

The UC Field Station—or Bayside Research Campus as it has been renamed for its latest planned incarnation—is built on the site where a manufacturing plant turned mercury into blasting caps over the course of a century. Mercury is toxic to the nervous systems and is known to cause birth defects in cases of large exposures. 

In addition, the neighboring Campus Bay site houses a massive quantity of toxins, now buried under a thin concrete cap. 

Previous protests at the site drew members of Bay Area Residents for Responsible Development and the Richmond Progressive Alliance during their ultimately successful campaign to force the state to give cleanup jurisdiction over both sites to the State Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). 

Lichterman said UC supervisors took names of RFS employees who attended a May 19 meeting at the Field Station featuring Contra Costa County Public Health Director Dr. Wendel Brunner and Dr. Richard Kreutzer, chief of the Environmental Health Investigative Branch of the state Department of Health Services. 

After the meeting, Lichterman said, “all the Field Station people were notified that they were not to spread rumor about the site next door (Campus Bay) or talk about environmental hazards or they would face discipline.” 

UC Berkeley officials didn’t respond to questions about the warnings by deadline Monday.  

Several RFS workers approached by a reporter have refused to comment on the subject. 

Cherokee Simeon Ventures is the developer of Campus Bay and has been selected by the university as the proposed developer of the UC site. 

The firm is a special purpose corporation formed by developer Simeon Properties and Cherokee Investment Partners, an international financing company that specializes in building projects on cleaned-up toxic waste sites. 

Cherokee’s plans for a 1331-unit housing unit at Campus Bay have been temporarily shelved pending the outcome of further toxics investigations at the site and a ruling by DTSC of the suitability of building a high-rise condo project atop a mound of 350,000 cubic yards of buried waste. 

Some of the toxins generated by the manufacture of pesticides, acids and other chemicals at the Campus Bay site are also present at RFS in addition to the mercury. 


State actions 

DTSC spokesperson Angela Blanchette said her agency is currently gathering information on toxins at RFS and Campus Bay. The state recently allocated money for a study of possible soil gas intrusions into the existing buildings at the Campus Bay office park, which should commence by the end of August. 

Blanchette said the agency is closely monitoring investigations by the state Department of Health Services and the Contra Costa Health Department of an RFS program that has students working on restoring a section of the field station’s shoreline march. 

“Our understanding is that the area has been remediated by the (San Francisco Bay Regional) Water Control Board, but we are following things closely,” she said.  


No strike impact, says UC 

Noel Van Nyhuis, spokesperson for University of California President Robert C. Dynes said Monday that the union walkout isn’t legal because it’s being conducted while union officials and university representatives are in the midst of negotiations for a new contract. 

Van Nyhuis said that of the system’s 17,000 employees only 600 to 700 didn’t report to work Monday. 

“The strike is having no effect on university operations,” he said. 

UC Berkeley spokesperson Noel Gallagher said only scattered pickets have appeared on campus. “We’ve been able to keep classes going, and nothing has been shut down because of the strike,” she said.›