Were drums of radioactive waste from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory buried in South Richmond?
A multi-jurisidictional investigation to determine just that is now being launched after a survey detected buried metal where a retired UC Berkeley worker said he helped bury the drums along the South Richmond shoreline.
All parties caution that the presence of metal could be anything from hubcaps to scrap metal, and that only an excavation at the site will determine what is buried in the landfill.
Rick Alcaraz, a retired groundskeeper at the university’s Richmond Field Station (RFS), said he and other workers made repeated trips to the laboratory in the late 1960s to collect heavy 55-gallon drums.
He said they dumped the containers in the landfil l at a site where confirmation of the presence of submerged metal at the site was made on Aug. 18 by a UC Berkeley crew who surveyed the area with a magnetometer.
The discovery was disclosed in a status report released last week by Barbara J. Cook, the B erkeley-based chief of Northern California coastal cleanup for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).
There was a delay between Alcaraz’s report and the survey because of uncertainty about which jurisdiction owned the site.
The owner t urned out to be the City of Richmond Redevelopment Agency, which subsequently granted authorization for the UC Berkeley survey.
“We’re the lead agency,” Ron Baker, Sacramento-based chief of the DTSC’s information office, said Monday.
“We are aware of t hose allegations and we are in the process of looking into them,” he said. “We fully intend to go out and look at this.”
Baker said the investigation would include the Radiological Health Branch of the state Department of Health Services, which has the m ission “to enhance and protect public health, safety, and environmental quality in California by regulating the use of and exposure to radiation.”
Cook said Monday that the DTSC will be using LFR-Levine Fricke, which has the cleanup contracts for the RFS and adjoining Campus Bay sites, to conduct a thorough examination of the site, hopefully concluding by the end of the month.
Alcaraz said he reported the incident because he was afraid that when the drums were exposed, children and others might experien ce what happened to him when he opened one of the drums and examined some of the rocks he found inside.
Alcaraz said that later that evening, “I began to bleed from my eyes, ears and nose, and my feet swelled up. I don’t want that happening to anyone els e.”
Treated at Brookside Hospital at the time, Alcaraz said he was told that his symptoms were caused by an allergic reaction to the eucalyptus trees at RFS.
“I don’t believe it,” he said.
The disposal site is just to the northeast of the field station, one of several sites along the Stege Marsh shoreline which were heavily contaminated by a century of chemical manufacturing.
The field station and the adjoining Campus Bay site, where a development combine hopes to install 1,330 units of housing atop a massive mound of buried hazardous waste, were transferred from the jurisdiction of the Regional Water Quality Control Board to the DTSC earlier this year after protests and a campaign by area activists.
Cook said Monday that the excavation will be done cautiously and in coordination with a variety of agencies that have jurisdiction over waterfront activities
Among the agencies that the DTSC is keeping informed are the Richmond Redevelopment Agency, which owns the site, the Bay Conservation and Developm ent Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the state Department of Fish and Game, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The U.S. Department of Energy, which runs the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab oratory, is not involved at this point because the agency has no record of drums being disposed of at the site, Cook said.
Cook told a gathering of the Community Advisory Group that is offering guidance to her staff on toxic sites in the South Richmond a rea that the core drilling normally used to detect the presence of underground contaminants couldn’t be utilized for fear that something hazardous might be released from a buried drum.
Cook said Monday that the site would have to be excavated layer by la yer in a process similar to an archaeological dig, with crews removing two feet of soil, then gathering further magnetometer readings and testing for volatile organic toxins, followed by another two-foot slice with more testing, and so on.
Leah Brooks, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health Services in Sacramento, said her agency will be involved as well if radioactive waste is discovered, with the DTSC serving as the lead agency.
Brooks’ agency has clear responsibilities in all cases where p otential radiological health risks are involved, said the DTSC’s Baker.
Sherry Padgett, a spokesperson for Bay Area Residents for Responsible Development (BARRD), which has been the most visible organization in challenging development at the polluted sites, said she had mixed feelings about the news.
“If you’re sitting in an auditorium and you smell smoke, it could mean a fire—or it could mean that someone’s just lit a cigarette,” she said. “The best of all cases would be that nothing comes of it. It’s just some buried metal. But if it turns out to be something else...”