Hancock Addresses Richmond Citizens Group

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday November 14, 2006

Loni Hancock came to Richmond Thursday night to visit the citizen panel she helped to create. 

The East Bay Democratic assemblymember addressed the Community Advisory Group (CAG) established to advise the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) on the cleanup of hazardous waste sites in southern Richmond. 

Listening closely to her words were two CAG members who have played a critical role in bringing the contamination issues into the public eye, Sherry Padgett and Gayle McLaughlin. 

“My office is going to be here, and we want to work in partnership with you and DTSC,” Hancock told CAG members. “If there’s anything I can do to get you additional resources, then let me know.” 

Hancock said the CAG “can be a model for the entire state, and I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for stepping up to the plate.” 

The CAG was created after intense political pressure first raised by Padgett and members of Bay Area Residents for Responsible Development (BARRD) brought the issue to the attention of another future CAG member, Contra Costa County Public Health Director Dr. Wendel Brunner, who in turn contacted Hancock. 

“Dr. Brunner said he was alarmed about the things he had learned from Sherry about the safety of the cleanup,” said Hancock, referring to work down at the site of the former Stauffer/Zeneca chemical manufacturing complex west of the Bayview Avenue exit off Interstate 580. 

Heavy dust raised during excavation of the site and the subsequent burial of contaminated soil on the property worried Padgett, who worked in an office close to the site. Padgett and other activists formed BARRD, which in turn attracted the support of the Richmond Progressive Alliance, of which McLaughlin was a veteran member. 

McLaughlin joined BAARD members for protests at the Zeneca site, and won for a City Council seat in 2004 as a member of the Green Party. Two years later she challenged incumbent Mayor Irma Anderson for the position of Richmond’s chief executive. 

With an estimated 2,000 absentee ballots yet to be counted, McLaughlin holds a slim 192-vote lead over Anderson, who has yet to concede. Hancock, a Democrat, had endorsed fellow Democrat Anderson. 

CAG members who questioned Hancock included two former residents of Seaport Village, a housing complex that stood immediately east of the chemical complex from 1946 to 1957. 

Ethel Dotson told Hancock she had just learned that she has about a year to live because of cancer she attributes to exposure during childhood, and JoAnne Tilmon said 11 of her family members have died, and another—an aunt—is suffering from cancer. 

Both have said they are less than trusting of regulatory agencies. 

“I’m very skeptical of DTSC,” said Tilmon. “I want to make sure we’re doing the best for the community.”  

“I understand why people are skeptical of government agencies at this point,” said Hancock. “But DTSC has the most expertise and the most commitment to helping people.” 

Dotson and Tilmon are both concerned that while plant employees have been granted an extension on the statutory provisions for filing health claims, no such extension has been granted to Seaport residents. 

Hancock urged them to visit her office to discuss their concerns. 

The chemical plant cleanup—and the remediation of the site immediately to the west that houses the UC Berkeley Richmond Field Station—had originally been under the aegis of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. 

In part because the water boards have no toxicology experts on staff and no provisions for regular public input, Padgett, McLaughlin and Hancock had pushed for the takeover by DTSC. 

The Berkeley lawmaker held a state legislative hearing at the Field Station in November 2004, which led to the decision by state officials to hand over jurisdiction of both sites to DTSC. 


Uranium worries 

While most of the concerns have focused on a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals contaminating the soil, another ongoing concern is the possibility of radioactive contamination. 

A search is still underway for barrels possibly containing radioactive waste that CAG member Rock Alcaraz said he helped dump in the waters off the Field Station decades earlier. The source, he said, was apparently the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). 

A preliminary search at one location came up empty, but Barbara Cook, the DTSC’s chief of Northern California coastal cleanups, said an additional search will be conducted at a site identified by Alcaraz. 

Another former LBNL employee, radiation biologist Dr. Michael Esposito, said he is concerned about anomalous findings of radium at the former Seaport Village site. 

Because a phosphate plant was once located at the Zeneca site, Esposito said increased uranium could be expected in the area because the element is found in phosphate ores. 

While the totals of radioactive elements are small and below federal guidelines, Esposito said that an imbalance between levels of uranium and radium indicate that some uranium contamination had occurred. 

Both elements are typically found at the same levels, because of the age of the earth and the rate at which uranium decays into radium, and, ultimately, into lead. But at the Seaport Village site now occupied by the so-called downwind business, uranium particles outnumber lead by a factor of two to one. 

Findings for nearby Booker T. Anderson Park, selected as a control site, showed the expected nearly one-to-one ratio of the radioactive elements. 

“While the values are small, we have to factor them in with the dangers to exposure to other risk, to all carcinogens found at the site,” he said. 

One of the problems CAG members have discovered is that while statistical risks of cancer and other ailments can be found for individual chemicals found at the sites, no such estimates exist for the chemicals in combination with each other—and state and federal cleanup standards have no way to estimate the combinatorial risks. 

Yet chemicals often produce synergistic effects in combination, results not predictable by simple addition of the risks. Padgett and other CAG members have said they’re especially concerned because of the wide range of deadly compounds found at the sites. 

Esposito also said that the tests were performed “by a quick and dirty method” that doesn’t offer accurate findings. “The levels of inaccuracy are so high that the footnotes in the report have more information than the data,” he said, likening the report to “a dance of the seven veils.” 


Other concerns 

Why isn’t the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) posting warning signs and building fences to keep people—especially children—out of contaminated soils? 

CAG member Eric Blum asked Cook why the BCDC hadn’t responded to repeated requests from the CAG and DTSC to post signs warning of dangers of toxic exposure to mercury, arsenic and PCBs to Bay Trail users and residents of Marina Bay. 

The dangerous substances are found in Meeker Slough, which separates the Marina Bay housing tract from the UCB Field Station. Currently, part of the area lacks a fence and signs warning of the danger. 

Blum said he drafted a letter the CAG sent to BCDC “just asking that we get signs that make it clear there is danger there,” and to “get fencing to keep children from stepping and playing in things that are fairly toxic. It’s right there in the soil.” 

Cook said she had been unable to get a definitive response from the agency, which must approve all such signs and fences along the shore area. 

BCDC’s Executive Director is Will Travis, who is also chair of Berkeley Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee.