The University of California continues to harbor big plans for a 152-acre parcel of land near door to a massive chemical plant on the southern Richmond shoreline—both as an academic research facility and as the potential home for cash-generating corporate research programs.
But environmental hazards have postponed those plans until the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) studies the site.
When the university first took possession of the Richmond site in 1950, it offered just what the university wanted—lots of room to try out massive engineering projects away from the main campus, where future development was targeted for the school’s primary teaching mission.
“The College of Engineering was interested in the site for large-scale testing facilities,” said Kevin Hufferd, project manager and senior planner for the university’s Facilities Services/Capital Projects staff.
With room to spare the site allowed for testing of such large-scale projects, including a fog tunnel to test aircraft landing lights, test tracks for self-steering cars, testing facilities to measure the capacity of cables for the Bay Bridge and a massive “shaking table” to test architectural scale models for earthquake safety.
The site also houses a Forest Products Laboratory, a major regional chemical testing for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a regional library for the UC system.
The university has been pondering ways to increase use of the field station, which Hufferd called “a wonderful piece of property” and the school’s largest off-campus possession.
Sparsely and casually developed—Hufferd called it a “hodgepodge”—the site contains a number of 22 pre-1940 buildings rated as seismically poor and very poor in a 1997 survey. Hufferd said the university’s long-term goal is to develop the site as “an auxiliary high-end research campus, but the question is how to get there.”
In the interim, he said, the school is considering adding private sector research facilities alongside the university’s as a means of generating revenue to fund infrastructure improvements.
But the regulatory change has delayed the negotiations with Simeon Properties, the San Francisco-based development firm the university had picked as its potential partner in developing the site.
“We thought we would place them on hold until we could see what would come out” of the administrative hand-over, Hufferd said.
For the time being, “everything is on hold pending further feedback from the DTSC” and an evaluation by campus administration, which has yet to give final approval of the joint corporate/academic research park concept, Hufferd said.
Of the 152 acres owned by the university, 100 consist of dry lands and the remainder is either shoreline marsh or submerged beneath the waters of the bay.
In its call for development discussions, Hufferd’s staff proposed a project that would add 2.2 million square feet of new construction on 70 acres of the site. Structures now on the site total about 500,000 square feet.
Part of the development would be purely academic, including an expansion of the 215,000-square-foot regional University of California Northern Regional Library Facility to 500,000 square feet.
The climate-controlled library currently houses 7.7 million books from all Northern California UC campuses. The volumes are computer-indexed and stored according to size rather than subject matter or authorship.
Despite the temporary setback, Hufferd said he is still very interested in pursuing the proposal, in which the university would retain ownership of the land.
Because space leased to corporations would pay a possessory interest fee equivalent to property tax, the City of Richmond is also very interested in the proposal, said Steve Duran, the city’s Director of Community and Economic Development.
Hufferd said development would occur over a number of years, and that in the long-run, the sites leased to corporations would revert to university use.
“In the interim, it would provide a tax benefit to the community and help us create a critical mass of development to allow us to invest in infrastructure and amenities,” he added.
No housing is planned for the site, and is precluded by the existing water board cleanup order.
Officials also insist that the site poses no health risks to employees.
Mark Freiberg, director of the university’s Office of Environment, Health & Safety, said the university recognized that residual contaminants remained at the site when they purchased the property in 1950, but he said that evaluations made at the time of purchase and in the years since “indicate that there is no hazard to the occupants.”
Field station workers have repeatedly raised concerns about residual contamination at the site, but Freiberg said extensive testing over the years has never yielded evidence of health risks to employees.
UC officials say they have worked hard to provide information to employees and the public.
“We do struggle with how to get communications out effectively,” said Freiberg.
Health concerns are evaluated as they come in, he said, “and we have yet to find any that actually pan out.”
Reports are regularly posted on a web site—http://rfs.berkeley.edu/—and on bulletin boards at the facility. The web site also gives contact information for university officials, state and county regulators and others.
“There is more current information on our web site than on the DTSC’s,” said Greg Haet, UCB’s associate director of environmental protection. “We post things more quickly.”
“The rumors are frustrating,” said Christine Shaff, communications manager for Hufferd’s department. “We’re not getting the information to follow up on them.”
Shaff said she has scheduled meetings with staff, and sends weekly updates to all who are interested while construction and remediation work is conducted.
But along with the land, the university also inherited a toxic legacy, one which has stalled development plans and raised concerns by field station employees, neighbors and environmental activists.
Until two years before the purchase, the property had been the home of a plant where for 68 years the California Cap Company had used a particularly dangerous chemical to manufacture a variety of explosives.
At the site once known as Stege Station, California Cap manufactured a variety of explosives. But their primary product was the blasting cap, a small metal-clad explosive ignited by a burning fuse or an electric charge and used to detonate other explosives like dynamite and TNT.
The explosive compound in the caps, mercury fulminate, is made from mercury—a hazardous metal in itself and the source of a variety of other toxic compounds, one of which—methyl mercury, derived from a variety of sources—has made San Francisco Bay fish unsafe for pregnant women to consume.
California Cap also added other contaminants to the soil, most notably lead and copper.
When the university acquired the land in 1950, the plant itself had been demolished and removed, though a collection of smaller buildings remained—along with some of the contaminants.
But there were other contaminants, as well, coming from right next door.
When UC bought the 152-acre property, the largest source of contamination lay immediately to the east, in the massive manufacturing complex that was then churning out a host of noxious compounds, including sulfuric acid and a variety of herbicides and pesticides.
The plant, owned by Stauffer Chemical and a variety of successor firms, generated a massive amount of a dangerous wastes, including hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of iron pyrite ash.
Pyrite, a brittle metal commonly known as “Fool’s Gold,” is composed of iron and sulfur. Heated, the metal releases the sulfur, which is used in the manufacture of acid. Some remains with the iron, and when wet, the residual acid produces an acid solution and releases other metals that naturally occur in pyrite into the environment.
Pyrite ash was used as landfill both at the chemical plant and at the field station.
Acid production ceased in 1970, but the production of other hazardous chemicals continued until the plant closed.
The San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board exerted its jurisdiction over the Stauffer site in 1980, when tests revealed that chemicals from the complex were leaching out into the waters of the bay.
The board’s jurisdiction also extended to the Richmond Field Station. In 1999, the agency ordered evaluations of both sites, and followed up with a pair of cleanup orders two years later, one for the Stauffer site and the other for the RFS.
While the university was legally responsible for cleaning up the legacy of California Cap, AstraZeneca—the giant London-based pharmaceutical and chemical manufacturer—was held liable both for the Stauffer site and for contamination at RFS that had come from the Stauffer plant.
While the pharmaceutical giant hired an Emeryville-based private contractor to conduct their cleanup, UC opted to do its own work, relying on the scientific expertise of its own staff.
The plan the water board approved for cleanup at the Stauffer site proved controversial from the start, in part because it called for burial of most of the hazardous wastes on site rather than their removal to an approval toxic waste disposal landfill—the costlier option chosen by the university.
“We’ve spent over $16 million to date,” said Mark Freiberg, director of the university’s Office of Environment, Health & Safety.
But community suspicions generated over the Stauffer cleanup—starting with the unregulated demolition of plant buildings which generated massive amounts of dust—had created a critical, often hostile environment.
Suspicions heightened after the Stauffer site was sold on Dec. 31, 2002 to Cherokee-Simeon Ventures LLC, a consortium formed by Simeon Properties—the university’s would-be partner at the fiield staiton—and Cherokee Investment Partners, a firm which specializes in funding projects developed on restored contaminated sites.
After the firm found few takers for its planned research park at the site, Cherokee-Simeon unveiled a scheme to build a 1330-unit high-rise housing project directly atop the entombed 350,000 cubic yards of pyrite cinders and other hazardous wastes assembled during the cleanup.
The announcement served as a catalyst to neighbors and political activists, and they began mobilizing around the issue of forcing a change in regulatory oversight.
Instead of the regional water board—an agency without a single toxicologist on its staff—groups like Bay Area Residents for Responsible Development (BARRD), the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and the West County Toxics Coalition called for oversight by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), an agency staffed with a wide range of scientific experts.
Their cause was joined by East Bay Assemblymember Loni Hancock, along with Cindy Montanez, another powerful Assembly Democrat, followed by the Richmond City Council.
While the activists’ initial focus was aimed at Campus Bay, their focus soon expanded to include the field station—especially after the announcement that UC Berkeley had selected Simeon Properties as their potential developer of the proposed academic/corporate research park expansion of the field station.
UC Berkeley officials—Freiberg included—opposed a handover, but after the Richmond City Council joined the call for DTSC control and the state Environmental Protection Agency ordered the transfer.
With the DTSC takeover came the creation of a Community Advisory Group composed of officials, activists and other citizens who advise the agency on what should be included in cleanup plans.
That panel has called for a thorough characterization of the field station—a detailed examination of all parts of the site to determine what contaminants remain and where.
Meanwhile, plans for the housing complex at Campus Bay have been placed on hold. One thing is certain. The university’s efforts will be closely monitored, not only by the DTSC, but by the community.
Union officials like Joan Lichterman and activists like BAARD’s Sherry Padgett say they are concerned that the university’s drive for growth may come at the expense of workers and the community, and they say they’ll be keeping a close eye on the field station in the months and years to come.â