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Richmond Soil Radiation Levels Debated at Advisory Meeting

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday October 17, 2006

Just how much radiation is there in southern Richmond, and how dangerous is it to residents and folks who work there? 

Members of a state advisory panel heard two conflicting versions Thursday night—and while both sides seemed to agree on the numbers, the interpretations provoked stark conflict. 

At issue was the meaning of levels of Radium 226 found in the soils adjacent to Campus Bay, the site of a century of chemical manufacturing, and at nearby Booker T. Anderson Park. 

Michael J. Esposito, a retired scientist from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, charged that the numbers were alarming, averaging 40 times higher than federally recommended standards for cleanups at the site of residential developments. 

But Robert Daveny, an engineer for the consulting firm hired by the site’s owners to evaluate the data, said that the numbers were in fact well within averages for soils found throughout the country. 

Daveny said at least one other federal cleanup guideline was well above typical levels of contaminants found in naturally occurring soils. 

But the Emeryville consultant probably didn’t help his case with the two comparative examples he first used. 

“I called colleagues from sites nearby,” said Daveny, one in the Berkeley hills and the other in the Altamont hills. 

“The Berkeley hills site wouldn’t happen to be Lawrence Berkeley Lab, would it?” asked Eric Blum, a business owner whose firm is located near the sites. 

“Yes,” acknowledged Daveny, adding that the radiation levels recorded there “are actually at the low end of the national range” for so-called “background radiation” from radium naturally occurring in soils, water and air. 

Those data were collected by a lab at UC Davis primarily from farmlands across the country, he said. 

The Altamont hills site was, in fact, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory—which, like LBNL, has a long history as a center of research dealing with highly radioactive compounds. 

But the levels at both sites, Daveny said, were “very typical for exposures for any other location in the U.S.” 

Daveny was addressing the Community Advisory Group (CAG) appointed to advise the state Department of Toxic Substances Control about hazardous waste sites in southeast Richmond. 

Radiation has long been the concern of community activists—and now CAG members—like Sherry Padgett and Ethel Dotson, both current members of the CAG. 

Both had attributed their battles with cancer to exposure to hazardous compounds at the site. Padgett works at a firm immediately adjacent to Campus Bay and Dotson grew up in a long-vanished housing complex near the site. 

The issue of radiation was raised at Thursday night’s CAG meeting because of Esposito’s comments on a report Daveny’s firm produced about the Campus Bay in which the park was used as a comparative “control” for evaluating radiation readings from Campus Bay. 

Padgett and CAG Toxic Committee Chair Jean Rabovsky, herself a retired state toxicologist, question the use of the park as a control because it is downwind from Campus Bay and thus potentially shares the same contaminants. 

Daveny said the data from the park argued against contamination because levels were consistent down to 10 feet below the surface, while windblown contaminants would accumulate on the surface and thus should be higher closer to the surface if radiation-laced dust had blown onto the site. 

Presence of radionuclides—isotopes created by the decay of radioactive material—was suspected in part because of some experiments with radioactive materials known to have been conducted at the Campus Bay site and because chemical plants there produced phosphate fertilizers, made from ores that typically contain higher than normal amounts of radioactive elements. 

Barbara J. Cook, the DTSC’s chief of Northern California cleanup operations, said her agency will look more closely at the data when results of a second survey now in progress have been submitted. 

“I don’t gain a lot of confidence when I hear we’re on a par with the Lawrence Livermore lab,” said Blum. 

Following the meeting, Steven J. Levitas, an attorney from Raleigh, NC, who represents Cherokee Investment Partners—codevelopers of Campus Bay with Bay Area developer Simeon Properties—buttonholed Esposito, asking “Are you aware that the radium levels are one-third of the national average?”