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After-School Program Operates at Toxic Site By RICHARD BRENNEMAN

Friday September 30, 2005

Despite a signed agreement barring schools and day care centers on a toxics-laden South Richmond site, minority students of the Making Waves academic preparation program meet regularly on the site. 

Just how much danger the site poses to children remains a question. 

The highly acclaimed educational program provides support and academic preparation for 500 students selected from 20 elementary schools in Richmond and seven in San Francisco. 

The site, which housed a century of chemical manufacturing activities that loaded the soil with hundreds of contaminants, is currently owned by Cherokee-Simeon Ventures LLC. Plans to build a 1,330-unit housing complex on the site are currently on hold. 

Making Waves students meet in an office building on the site that once housed offices of Zeneca (now Astra-Zeneca), the last of the corporate entities to manufacture chemicals on the property. 

In a Feb. 11 letter to the Richmond City Council, Ronald C. Nahas, a member of the program’s board of directors, said about 200 students study onsite between 3:30 and 6 p.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. 

“The students are brought to the building via private transportation, escorted into the building by their paid tutors and confined to the building while they are on the site,” he wrote. 

Nahas said Thursday that the program wouldn’t allow students in the building unless they felt conditions were safe. “The most important thing to us is that there should be no risk to the children,” he said. 

Barbara Cook, who is overseeing the site for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), said preliminary test results show that the children aren’t being exposed to significant risks, although more will be known next week after the analysis of results of recent state tests. 

Others, including many of the activists who played a major role in forcing the handover of the site to Cook’s agency, say they’re not so sure the site is safe. 

Dr. Robert Raabe, an emeritus UC Berkeley plant pathology professor and host of the university’s popular sick plant clinic, said he believes trees near the site show indications of damage from toxic exposures. 

Cook said that Raabe, Cherokee-Simeon landscapers and DTSC staff surveyed the area near Making Waves and found that most of the damage was caused by improper watering and fire blight, an organism carried by honey bees from blossom to blossom. 

She said that, at Raabe’s suggestions, tests are being conducted on samples from one tree near the building housing Making Waves. 

Cook also said that soil gas tests conducted by Making Waves in their building didn’t live up to DTSC standards, which had prompted the agency’s own tests of soils beneath the structure.  

“We understand they will have a new location for their program after the end of the academic year,” said Cook. If the tests conclude there is no public health risk in the short term, they will be allowed to stay through the end of the school year. 

“In reality, we didn’t have any other place to meet,” said Nahas. “We were pushed out of the schools and the community center buildings, and Cherokee Simeon has been very supportive of us, even though it’s caused some bad publicity for them,” he said. 

Sponsored largely by businesses, the Making Waves program has reported remarkable success in preparing minority students for the rigors of academia. 

While only 58 percent of California’s African American and Latino students graduate from high school, Making Waves claims a 98 percent graduation rate. More impressive, 92 percent of program students go on to college. 

According to Richmond City Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin, a leading critic of past cleanup activities at Campus Bay, city staff directed program officials to locate at the building. 

“It is my understanding that the city told them that was the place to go,” she said. 

The program is housed in a building on S. 49th Street which is located in Parcel C of the Cherokee Simeon property and backs up on a toxic waste hot spot previously identified by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. 

Buried on the property immediately behind the building housing Making Waves is what one local activist called “a 350,000-cubic-yard, 30-acre, eight-foot-tall table top mountain” of buried wastes, largely acidic iron pyrite cinders but also housing a noxious brew of other, more dangerous compounds, many known to be lethal and or carcinogenic. 

Nahas said that the program has a new location for the program, which will be constructed in an industrial “shell” building at 860 Harbor Way South and should be ready for occupancy by the time the next school year starts. 

Joan Lichterman, statewide health issues representative for the union that represents many workers at the main UC Berkeley campus and at the Richmond Field Station adjacent to the Campus Bay site on the north, said that while Making Waves offers a very good program, she questions the wisdom of locating it adjacent to a toxics-laden waste dump. 

Lichterman, a UC Berkeley employee, represents the interests of members of the University Professional & Technical Employees-CWA union. 

Calls to Cherokee Simeon’s site manager were not returned by deadline.