Trees are dying around two controversial sites in Richmond, and highly regarded UC Berkeley plant pathologist Dr. Robert Raabe thinks toxins are to blame.
Raabe, the conductor of the university’s popular Sick Plant Clinics at the Botanical Garden, examined plants at the request of Professor Claudia Carr of the College of Natural Resources and activist Sherry Padgett.
Carr and Padgett are two of the founders of Bay Area Residents for Responsible Development, which has been demanding increased scrutiny of a pair of major developments planned for construction on adjacent sites in South Richmond.
The first site is Campus Bay, built atop a massive mound of buried hazardous and toxic waste accumulated during a century of chemical manufacturing.
Cherokee Simeon Ventures, the creation of a developer and an investment fund specializing in development of projects on rehabilitated hazardous waste sites, is planning a project on the site of the former Zeneca Pharmaceuticals plant just south of UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station (RFS).
The same consortium is also negotiating with UC Berkeley to develop the field station as a corporate/industrial research park. The university site hosted a blasting cap factory that left a legacy of mercury pollution, and some Zeneca wastes were also left at the field station.
Trees have been dying on both properties, and the two activists sought Raabe’s expert opinion to learn the causes.
Barbara Cook, project manager for the cleanups at both sites for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), has sought the opinion of DTSC staff botanist Allan Fone.
“He looked around the trees and at the soil and found that the soil was very wet and the drainage system was either plugged or not working,” Cook said.
Raabe looked not only at the trees along Meade, but along the business park immediately to the southeast of the site and along the RFS to the northwest.
“I came to the conclusion that that it was not root rot, nor was it too much water. This would leave something else, and I suggested tests of plant tissue and soil for chemicals,” Raabe said. “It was of interest that the sides of the trees facing areas charted as chemical hot spots showed more damage than the opposite sides.”
Cherokee-Simeon gardeners have been removing diseased trees from along Meade.
“If it were excess soil in the water, you would expect to see root rot,” said Raabe. “It can usually be tested by cutting into the bark right at the soil line.”
But Raabe’s cut showed no evidence in the plant tissue. “If there’s rot, it usually turns brown, but it had not. There are other fungi that can cause problems, but I didn’t expect to see or find them and I didn’t.”
Among the tests Raabe suggested was an analysis of plant tissue from both sides of trees showing one-sided damage.
“Damage isn’t usually one-sided like this. It usually girdles the plants,” he noted.
Joan Lichterman, system-wide Health and Safety Director for UC members of Local 9119 of the United Professional and Technical Workers-Communications Workers of America, said tress have also been dying at the Richmond Field Station.
“Employees have told me the university spent the last few weekends removing trees and grinding them up into wood chips,” she said.
The ailing trees are major concerns to critics who contend that the cleanup at both sites has failed to address health care concerns of people who work and live near the site.
“The national leaders of our union are very concerned,” she said, and Larry Cohen, the executive vice president who is expected to be elected to head the union after next week’s national convention in Chicago, has asked to be informed of all developments at RFS.
Cook said enhanced testing will be done at the Campus Bay site and in the business park area to the southwest. Soil gas testing is already underway near the Zeneca building that houses the Making Waves after-school program, and preliminary results indicated no vapor readings above acceptable levels.
Further testing of the business park scheduled to begin in September will include soil gas, soil analysis and water testing.
“These will give us a better understanding of what chemicals, if any, may be affecting the trees,” Cook said.
“All the trees along 49th Street (in the business park) are showing signs of stress,” Padgett said. “The branches are falling off on windy days. There are 210 chemicals known to be at the Zeneca site, and we need a lot more testing.”
Calls placed to UC Berkeley’s Office of Environment, Health & Safety were not returned by deadline Monday, nor was a call made to Cherokee Investment Partners.