Toxic Richmond Sites May Trigger Change in State Law

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday April 18, 2006

Efforts by Richmond environmental activists are playing a major role in reducing developer opposition to laws tightening regulations at contaminated sites. 

That’s the report delivered Thursday by San Francisco attorney Peter Weiner to members of the Richmond Southeast Shoreline Area Community Advisory Group (CAG). 

Weiner has been donating his services to Bay Area Residents for Responsible Development (BARRD), the group which has led the fight for tighter control at two key south Richmond sites—Campus Bay and UCB Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station (RFS). 

Weiner briefed the CAG of two laws now before the state Assembly, one from East Bay Democrat Loni Hancock and the other from Cindy Montanez, a San Fernando Valley Democrat. 

At the urging or BARRD and other East Bay activists, Hancock and Montanez conducted a Nov. 6, 2004, legislative hearing at RFS that ultimately forced a changeover in regulatory oversight at both Campus Bay and the UCB site. 

The two adjacent sites housed chemical manufacturing plants for over a century which left the soil and water beneath heavily contaminated with deadly toxins. 

Both sites had been under the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, an agency that has no toxicologists on staff and does not provide for public participation in formulating cleanup plans. 

Following the hearing, both sites eventually were transferred by the state Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Toxic Substances Control, an agency heavily staffed with toxicologists and other scientists and which provides a public participation process in the form of CAGs. The Richmond CAG was formed after the handover. 

The two bills now pending in the state legislature face a much friendlier climate than similar measures that were stalled in committee last year, and Weiner told CAG members “this has happened because of you and this site.” 


Vapor intrusion 

Hancock’s AB 2092 focuses on sites where hazardous vapors—typically from a class of substances known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—pose a potential threat to people who live or work at a site. 

Now-stalled plans for a 1,331-unit high-rise condominium and apartment complex at Campus Bay called for fans to blow away vapors from spaces beneath the occupied floors of the structure—a proposal that alarmed activists. 

Hancock’s measure calls for the creation of a statewide database listing all sites with potential vapor intrusion problems, followed by formulation of plans to identify other potential problem sites, with orders to follow mandating testing of the sites, said Gayle Eads, legislative aide to the Berkeley assemblymember. 

Eads said that vapor intrusion effects are sometimes overlooked because their health consequences can take time to manifest. 

Existing information about sites is scattered throughout a variety of agencies, including the water boards, the DTSC, the state Integrated Waste Management Board and various city and county agencies. 

Under Hancock’s legislation, the information would be compiled in one data base and posted online under the supervision of the ombudsperson of the state Secretary for Environmental Protection. 

“We felt that would make it much easier to evaluate the extent of the problem,” Eads said. “Then we can figure out how to follow up. If we have all the information at one spot, then we can have all the agencies sit down at the same table and bring all of the different expertise to bear.” 

The information could be of special benefit to poorer counties and cities that lack the resources to evaluate the problem. 

Eads confirmed that the potential vapor problems at Campus Bay had played a major role in Hancock’s decision to draft the proposed legislation. 


Montanez bill 

The Montanez measure—AB 2144—authorizes the regional water boards to establish a public participation process during the formulation of plans to clean up contaminated sites. 

“Last year, the development community vociferously opposed” a similar measure, Weiner said, but because of the attention focused by problems at Campus Bay, opposition has largely dissolved. 

In the interim, he said the state Water Quality Control Board has issued directives to the local boards ordering them to provide the public greater opportunity to comment on proposed cleanup plans before they are adopted. The Montanez measure would formalize the process. 

“Basically, the bill equalizes the public participation process with the DTSC,” said Montanez legislative aide Michael Mendez. 

While current state law doesn’t require public participation in the formulation of cleanup plans and mandates a public comment period only after their adoption, Montanez’s measure mandates a public comment period—along with community notices in appropriate languages—for at least 30 days before a plan is adopted. 

The measure also provides for the formation of advisory groups—like the DTSC’s CAGs—which can be involved for longer periods through the cleanup plan formulation process. 

“CAGs aren’t appropriate for every site,” said Mendez, not does the DTSC form CAGs at every cleanup site. The Richmond group was formed as the result of a petition from community members. 

Weiner hailed the legislation as a major move forward.  


Other business 

CAG members also voted to recruit replacements for four of their members who have resigned, and to reduce their official quorum from 60 percent of members to half because of a shortage of members at recent meetings. 

Sherry Padgett, a CAG member and the leading BARRD member, reported on a recent meeting with UC Berkeley officials at the Richmond Field Station, where she stressed the need for signs along the Bay Trail and other parts of UC property. 

Padgett said she also emphasized to UCB officials the need for a complete survey of the site, which unlike the adjacent Campus Bay property, has never been systematically evaluated for contaminants. 

While the university had originally insisted that its own staff would handle all aspects of the cleanup at the site, the university has retained a consulting firm—Tetra Tech, Inc., based in Pasadena—to prepare a soil management plan for the site. 

Barbara J. Cook, DTSC’s Berkeley-based chief of Northern California coastal cleanup, said the plan will focus on providing guidelines for university employees excavating soil in areas known to harbor contaminants. 

A survey of soil at the West Shores site at Marina Bay, where Toll Brothers plans a condo complex, revealed more antimony into two samples, but only one was above the agency’s screening levels, Cook said. The agency is currently evaluating a new plan prepared to manage soil at the site, she said. 

Cook also said that her agency hasn’t ruled out the possibility that radioactive contaminants might be buried at Meeker Slough between the Field Station and the Marina Bay housing complex. 

A survey conducted earlier this year after CAG member and retired UCB employee Rick Alcaraz reported that he and other works had dumped barrels of possibly radioactive material at the site turned up no evidence of the barrels, but Alcaraz said the dig was too shallow and possibly at the wrong location. 

Cook said she will meet with Alcaraz and see if further work is needed..