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Toxics Panel Asks Water Board to Enforce Ban, By: Richard Brenneman

Friday January 06, 2006

The fate of a popular after-school tutoring program housed at a contaminated former chemical plant site dominated a Wednesday night meeting in Richmond. 

Making Waves, a popular and respected program for 250 youths from impoverished and largely minority backgrounds, now operates its programs for younger students in temporary quarters at Campus Bay. That site, for a century the home of plants making toxic chemicals, is now undergoing a state-mandated cleanup. 

As part of the cleanup, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing the cleanups both at Campus Bay and the adjoining UC Berkeley Richmond Field Station, created a Community Advisory Group (CAG) to help the state in its efforts. 

Ronald C. Nahas, a member of the Making Waves board of directors, appeared at Wednesday’s Richmond Southeast Shoreline CAG meeting to argue that the program be allowed to stay to finish the school year, noting that the program has acquired a new site where a new facility should be completed in time for the start of the September school session. 

At their December meeting, the CAG voted to ask the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, which originally had jurisdiction over the site, to enforce a deed restriction barring hospitals, day care centers for children or seniors and any schools from operating on the site. 

In a Dec. 23 letter to water board Executive Director Bruce Wolfe, CAG Chair Whitney Dotson called on Wolfe to “immediately enforce the deed restriction that states there will be no schools” on the contaminated site. 


Enforcement issues 

The restrictions remain in force, said Wolfe in a telephone interview Thursday. 

“I have turned the matter over to our attorneys to consider the legal issues involved,” he said. “We certainly want to enforce the restriction if we need to ... I would like to get this resolved by the end of the month.” 

Deed restrictions limiting use of partially remediated hazardous waste sites are a common feature of cleanup plans, but Wolfe said this is the first time in his memory that the board has needed to enforce one. 

Property owner Cherokee Simeon is a partnership of Cherokee Investment Partners, an investment fund, with Simeon properties, a San Francisco-based developer. Their plans for building a high-density, high-rise residential complex on the site have been postponed pending the completion of current cleanup activities and further studies by the DTSC. 

Cherokee Investment Partners executives insist the site is safe for the program and cite a recent DTSC evaluation of soil vapors at the site. 

In a Dec. 15 letter to Richmond City Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin—a CAG member who voted for the letter to the water board—Cherokee Managing Director Dwight Stenseth and Campus Bay engineering project manager Doug Mosteller labeled criticisms of the after school program’s location as “alarmist comments by a few vocal people.”  

Contra Costa County Public Health Director Dr. Wendel Brunner has supported the continuation of the program at the site, telling fellow CAG members Wednesday that the harm of disrupting a valuable educational program outweighs “the minuscule risks” revealed by the study. 

A DTSC examination of soil gas vapors in the building—fumes that can penetrate into structures from the soil beneath—revealed trace levels of two hazardous compounds, benzene and toluene. Of the two, only benzene is a known carcinogen, and the risk of developing cancer from the exposure levels found in the survey was estimated at 7.6 in 100 million. 

“DTSC has concluded that the soil vapor levels around Building 240 (the home of the program) do not pose a public health threat risk to the students and staff of Making Waves,” the report concluded. 

But other CAG members remain skeptical. 

Brunner remains an ardent supporter of remediation efforts at the site, and said Wednesday that no schools or similar facilities should be built at Campus Bay without further significant remediation efforts. 

Nahas, of the school board, said the Making Waves program moved to Campus Bay only after being forced to leave previous sites. “It was the only place in Richmond that could accommodate our students,” he said Thursday. 

High school students and program staff are currently housed in a facility at 200 24th St. near the Richmond Civic Center, where he said there have been “four shootings, two of them fatal,” within the last 90 days within a block of the building. 

The new location at 860 Harbor Way South should be considerably safer for the consolidated operations, he said Thursday. 

CAG members were skeptical, noting that the program had extended its planned stay at Campus Bay by several years. Nahas said that the program has made a “huge investment” in the new property, and is determined to complete construction by the start of the new school year. 


Help sought 

The state Department of Health Services is conducting interviews and collecting statements from community members to learn their concerns about and experiences with the site. 

Health Educator Rubi Orozco cautioned that the agency’s assessment isn’t a formal scientific study, “but the results will guide us and alert us to possible exposures” from the chemical manufacturing operations. 

DHS is particularly interested in hearing from former residents of the Seaport War Apartments that once existed on the eastern edge of the site. 

She asked anyone with concerns and information to contact her by mail at the Site Assessment Section of the Environmental Health Investigations Branch of the Department of Health Services, 850 Marina Parkway, Building P, Third Floor, Richmond 94804-6403, by e-mail at or by phone at 510-620-3671. 


Other news 

Excavations at the site off the Richmond Field Station, where a retired UC Berkeley worker has said drums containing suspected radioactive waste from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory were buried three decades ago, are scheduled to begin Monday.  

Barbara J. Cook, DTSC’s Berkeley-based chief of Northern California coastal cleanup, told the CAG that—barring more storms—work could be completed within a week. 

UC Berkeley officials were scheduled to hold a press briefing this Friday morning to discuss the university’s plans for the field station, where the university plans to build an additional two million square feet of facilities for a corporate/academic research park. 

CAG member Sherry Padgett and others have expressed concerns, stating that no expansion plans should be allowed until the property is thoroughly surveyed for concentrations of toxics resulting both from wastes dumped on the property from activities at the Campus Bay site and from a blasting cap factory on the field station site that used vast amounts of toxic mercury.f