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UC Regents Expected to Approve Lab’s Expansion

By Richard Brenneman
Friday July 13, 2007

The UC Regents are scheduled to approve two key environmental documents Monday, setting the stage for a major expansion at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 

The most significant is the environmental impact report (EIR) for the lab’s master plan for the next 18 years. The two other environmental documents pave the way for demolishing the Bevatron and building a 25,000-square-foot guest house for visiting experts and researchers. 

First on the agenda of the board’s Committee on Grounds and Buildings Monday meeting is the final draft of the lab’s Long Range Development Plan 2025 (LRDP). 

Calling for 884,000 square feet of new buildings and up to 500 new parking spaces and 860 new employees, the document also spells out the planned demolition of 272,000 square feet of existing buildings. 

While the regents will vote on a full EIR for the LRDP, the documents for the guest house consist of an environmental initial study coupled with the declaration of no significant environmental impacts. 

Construction on the guest house, a $10.9 million hotel-style building with 73 beds in 60 rooms, could begin in December, with completion planned for March, 2009. 

A third environmental document has been completed by the lab, but isn’t on the agenda—the final EIR on demolition of the lab’s Building 51 and the Bevatron, the world’s first large-scale atomic particle accelerator. 

All three documents are posted at the lab’s website,, and the full LRDP EIR is posted at 

The committee meeting is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. on the UC Santa Barbara campus. 


Comments, responses 

A large part of the LRDP final EIR is composed of critical comments from the city, community organizations and members of the public concerned about the impact of both the lab’s massive expansion and its cumulative effects when added to UC Berkeley’s own plans for the nearby southeast campus. 

One issue complicating site development is the presence of toxic compounds in the soil and groundwater created by past activities at the lab.  

Listed contaminants include volatile and semivolatile organic compounds, “very small amounts of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons,” hazardous metals and tritium, a radioactive isotope of the gaseous element hydrogen. 

In response to concerns by the East Bay Municipal Utility District about possible exposures during installation of underground utilities at the site, the document promises that all the contamination sites are documented, and precautionary measures would reduce any possible exposures to less than significant levels. 

The document contains two letters outlining City of Berkeley concerns: a 29-page summary from City Manager Phil Kamlarz and a nine-page letter from Public Works Transportation Division Principal Planner Matt Nichols detailing the specifics of city transportation concerns. 

One overarching city concern is having to deal with two separate LRDPs involving developments with concentrated impacts on one finite area of the city. 

A city lawsuit is already underway and linked with actions filed by neighbors and environmentalists challenging the regents’ adoption of the final EIR for the university’s Southeast Campus Integrated Projects, which will add another third-of-a-million square feet of construction immediately downhill from the lab. 

While the lab’s EIR insists the lab and the university are separate entities, the city has raised questions, and the lab acknowledges that both UC Berkeley and the lab—a U.S. Department of Energy complex operated under contract by UC—share staff and some of the same facilities. The lab also owns two buildings on campus, the Calvin and Donner labs. 

But lab officials insist that two separate LRDPs are appropriate, and contend that nothing in the California Environmental Quality Act says otherwise. 


Multiple concerns 

Some of the questions raised by the city concern one site designated as a city landmark and buildings considered eligible for landmark status. 

The Bevatron building, which housed the world’s first large-scale particle accelerator, was rejected as a landmark by Berkeley’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, but commissioners did give recognition to the site itself. Two other buildings considered candidates were already covered in the lab’s existing LRDP 2006, lab officials contend. 

As for the city’s questions about the lab’s impacts on a potential designated cultural landscape, the report contends that developments will respect the landscape and protect views to the maximum extent possible. 

While the report acknowledged the city’s contention that a catastrophic earthquake could lead to prolonged road closures, it said that “LBNL has in place policies and procedures” to maintain staff health and safety and “manage traffic through the hill site.” 

The university rejected outright the city’s contention that “significantly increasing the population in a high-geologic hazard area cannot be mitigated to a less than significant level solely through engineering.” 

As for the city’s plea for the lab to adopt the precautionary principle, the DEIR states following existing laws and regulations are adequate mitigations. 

Declaring the lab isn’t covered by the city’s Manufactured Nanoparticle Disclosure Ordinance, which requires reports on facilities making or using the microscopic technology, the lab “intends to provide on-going information of interest to the City in regard to the Lab’s work” in the nano realm. 

While acknowledging new programs will lead to significant increases in the amounts of dangerous materials stored and created on site, the lab contends existing rules and laws cover the dangers. 

Response to concerns over nanotech in a letter from Pamela Shivola, the EIR replied that the lab has safely worked with nano-sized bacteria and viruses. 

Responding to her concerns about the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute, which will be included in the Helios Building described in the EIR, the document states that a separate, full environmental review will be prepared for that building. The structure will also be built so that it won’t disturb an existing underground plume of tritium in the area, according to the LRDP EIR. 


Other worries 

In responses to concerns that the large number of faults in the lab area might trigger quakes, the report contends that the only likely surface rupture would come from the Hayward Fault itself, which is located south of the lab buildings, offering reports by the state Geological Survey as support. 

Several hundred area residents signed petitions from the Preserve the Strawberry Creek Watershed Alliance, which has called for a moratorium on building in the canyon and warned of the reported dangers of nanotech. 

Among the measures urged by the Sierra Club were: Leaving stands of trees intact and preserving the natural corridor of Strawberry Creek (a plea seconded by the Urban Creeks Council); minimizing truck traffic during construction by relocating excavated topsoil locally; using biodiesel-powered new construction equipment; shifting research toward peaceful uses of technology; disallowing any net gain in parking, and installation of a funicular railway to reduce car use. 

Gene Bernardi, a frequent lab critic, offered the simplest solution: Close it down, clean up the toxics and let the radioactivity decay in place. 

Ignacio Chapela, a UC Berkeley microbial biologist and an outspoken critic of the BP project, decried the lab’s increasing emphasis on creating genetically modified organisms in search of new fuel sources—research he said would created transgenic organisms which threatened “the entire canyon and the city and bay below.”  

Chapela also said construction of the new buildings would interfere with the use of the canyon and environs for teaching by university faculty. 

The report rejected his worries about genetically modified organisms, and said his concerns about the use of the canyon for teaching weren’t relevant to the EIR itself. 


Significant Error 

One obvious error in the document came in a response to a letter from Wendy Markel, president of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association.  

Joining with the Berkeley Planning and Landmarks Preservation commissions plea to locate development elsewhere than in the hills, Markel asked what university property in Richmond could serve as an alternate location. 

“Is any of the university property in Richmond contaminated?”” she asked. 

In response, the EIR noted that the university’s Richmond Field Station “has a history of soil and groundwater contamination,” adding that “UC Berkeley is working with the California Regional Water Quality Control Board to implement a cleanup and restoration plan” for the site and adjacent marshland. 

In fact, the water board was ousted from its oversight of the field station two years ago after community protests and intervention by the Richmond City Council and Assemblymember Loni Hancock. 

The site is currently under the jurisdiction of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which recently issued letters declaring that the university had illicitly disposed of thousands of truckloads of contaminated soil when the water board was in charge. 

The university had argued against a change of oversight agencies, with two officials insisting the school had been doing an adequate job.