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Toxic Questions Surround Two Richmond Sites

By Richard Brenneman
Friday July 06, 2007

More questions are swirling around the cleanup efforts at two adjacent contaminated sites in Richmond this week. 

Issues range from the adequacy of testing of contaminants at UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station (RFS) and the possibility of radioactive contamination both at the field station and at the adjacent site at Campus Bay, owned by AstraZeneca, a Swiss agro-chemical giant.  

State officials last week issued emergency cleanup orders to the university and AstraZeneca, demanding the cleanup of thousands of truckloads of contaminated soil illegally transported from the RFS and buried at the chemical company’s adjacent site. 

The orders from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) concern more than 3,000 truckloads of contaminated earth moved during cleanup operations between 2002 and 2004. 

But other questions remain, and scientists and two environmental and geological consultants working for a DTSC Community Advisory (CAG) Group overseeing the cleanups this week urged a halt to cleanup activities at the chemical company’s site in light of possible radioactive contamination there. 

Questions about radioactive contaminants have also arisen about RFS, and a possible site there has been identified. 

Just as worrisome to CAG member Sherry Padgett is the latest report on conditions at the RFS, which show the presence of significant levels of toxics where cleanup work has already been completed. 

“This is dramatic because they had excavated all of the area and brought in clean fill,” she said. 

Presence of the toxic incursions was disclosed in a hefty draft Current Conditions Report (CCR) prepared by the university’s environmental consultants in response to a Sept. 15, 2006 order from the DTSC. 

A similar report was ordered from AstraZeneca. 

Padgett said the university’s report is flawed, in part because the document only covers 90 of the site’s 152 acres. 

“We were expecting something more significant,” Padgett said. “The bottom line is that it isn’t adequate.” 

But Karl Hans, senior environmental scientist with the university’s office of Environment, Health & Safety, said the site area was specified in the DTSC order that led to the report. 

In response, member of the CAG’s Toxic Committee sent a 27-page response to the DTSC on June 8, raising detailed questions about the report’s specifics, along with recommendations. 

The committee has yet to receive a response. The university representatives canceled two consecutive meetings with the committee—the first two days before a scheduled session last month and a second time this month. 

“We wanted to meet with them before we prepared our report,” said Padgett. “They called two days before and said they had a open house they had to attend.” 

Padgett said the date for the second session was chosen as a date when university officials said they could attend. After the committee issued its report, Greg Haet, a university’s environmental health and safety officer, sent an email announcement that the school wouldn’t attend the second session. 

In his email to the committee, Haet offered to explain, but Padgett didn’t call. “The message was so terse it seemed pointless, particularly when we’d scheduled the meeting for a time they said they could attend.” 

Hans said the staff members had other commitments at the times of both meetings. “University staff familiar with the project have provided information at past CAG meetings, including the Toxics Committee,” he wrote in an email response to questions. He added that “In general, however, the University believes it is appropriate to deal directly with DTSC on these issues.”  


Key issues 

One of the key points raised in the committee’s report was the lack of any information about the university’s property south of the Bay Trail, some 40 percent of the RFS total acreage. 

Of the remaining acreage, the university’s consultants confined their testing largely to areas previously known to have harbored concentrations of toxics. 

“They didn’t do tests on most of the site,” said Padgett. 

“The Current Conditions Report is meant to consolidate information from previous investigations and summarize the current status of soil and groundwater conditions at the RFS. It is not intended to be an investigation work plan,” Hans responded. 

“The University will complete a Field Sampling Work Plan sometime in later 2007 based on DTSC’s review of the CCR. In addition, based on the extensive investigations performed to date, the RFS site is well-characterized and additional wide-spread sampling, such as grid sampling, is most likely not necessary, ” he said. 

The committee also questioned the claim by consultants that a plant that had reprocessed oils, including the unauthorized treatment of PCBs from electrical transformers, had contributed to the toxic load at the field station. 

The CAG committee asked the mention to be removed, given that the Liquid Gold plant was located on the other side of the AstraZeneca property, which had been the site of a century of chemical manufacturing. 

The committee also asked that the university consultants explain why the previously cleaned areas of Western Stege Marsh were showing elevated concentrations of PCBs near the surface, along with surface findings of mercury, arsenic and copper. 

“Low concentrations of metals and PCBs have been found in the sediment being deposited onto clean soils placed in areas excavated during 2002-2004,” Hans said. “The marsh sediment deposition processes are under investigation as part of the ongoing marsh monitoring program. These investigations are intended to help determine the source, or sources, of potential contaminants in the sediments.” 

The committee also asked for more testing for toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the soil and water through the RFS site and for greater study of the plume of toxics coming onto the field station from the AstraZeneca site 

Padgett said she was particularly concerned that the study didn’t include subsurface testing of soil and water near the border of the Campus Bay site near the intersection of 46th and Meade streets, where high levels of VOCs had been found on the Campus Bay side. 

“Soil and groundwater samples have been collected for chemical analyses in the northeastern portion of the RFS,” Hans responded. “Zeneca, as part of the investigation of their property required by DTSC, is performing additional characterization of chemicals in shallow and intermediate groundwater zones along the property boundary between the RFS and the former Zeneca site.” 

Padgett said she would also like to see an evaluation of the entire site for the presence of the highly toxic compound methyl mercury. Mercury was used at the RFS site by its previous occupant, California Cap Co., which manufactured blasting caps, ammunition and other explosive using fulminate of mercury, a compound made from the metal. 

Methyl mercury is a compound produced by the action of bacteria on mercury beneath the ground and in water. It is highly toxic, and has been linked to lowered intelligence in children, immune system disorders, heart attacks and death. 

Presence of the compound in San Francisco Bay has led to the posting of shoreline notices warning against regular consumption of fish caught in its waters. 

“The University expects DTSC’s official comments on the Current Conditions Report in the next month,” Hans wrote, “and will reply at that time to their specific comments and concerns.” 


Radioactive questions 

The committee is also concerned with issues of possible radioactive wastes at both the RFS and at the adjoining AstraZeneca site. 

Ethel Dotson, who spent her childhood in a segregated housing development near the sites, had long raised the issue of possible radioactive contamination. While her suspicions were initially disavowed by both the university and the chemical company, more information has surfaced that lends substances to her fears. 

Initial reports that a small test of melting uranium with an electron beam occurred at the chemical plant site have led to the discovery of more documentation indicating that more extensive testing may have taken place, including an account reporting that larger amounts of radioactive nuclear reactor fuel capsules may have been treated at the site. 

Another concern arises from the processing of so-called superphosphate fertilizers at the site, which are manufactured from ores that typically contain significant amounts of radioactive compounds. 

The concerns were raised in a letter sent Tuesday to the DTSC, AstraZeneca, Cherokee Simeon Ventures and others by Dorinda Shipman, a consultant with an Francisco-based Treadwell & Rollo, Inc., and Adrienne LaPierre, a scientist with Iris Environmental. 

The consultants were hired with funds provided by Cherokee Simeon, a company formed to develop the Campus Bay site, which it purchased from AstraZeneca. 

The consultants urged a halt to any further efforts to clean up the site pending a thorough examination of the site to determine the possible “human health and environmental risks.” 

“Proceeding with (cleanup efforts) before the completion of the site characterization process (in this case a thorough understanding of the radiological issues) could jeopardize the selection of a health protective remedy,” they wrote. 

Surface tests at the Campus Bay site conducted two years ago didn’t find measurable traces of radioactivity of the surface, though elevated radioactivity measurements have been detected in groundwater. 

Radiation concerns at the RFS arise chiefly from the reports of retired RFS worker and current CAG member Rick Alcaraz that he and other university staff members dumped barrels of rocks at the site hauled from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory which they believed to be radioactive. 

An exploratory dig at one site failed to find any trace of the barrels, but Alcaraz said they were dumped at another site, where magnetometer tests have shown the presence of metal beneath the surface.