Warnings of criminal penalties, charges of intimidation and ousters of worried UC Berkeley workers and concerns about radioactive contamination dominated discussions about two polluted southeast Richmond sites Thursday.
Cleanup actions at the university’s Richmond Field Station (RFS) and the adjacent Campus Bay development site are being closely watched by the Richmond Southeast Shoreline Area Community Advisory Group (CAG), a community panel advising the state Department of Toxics Substances Control (DTSC).
Thursday night’s CAG meeting was the first since the DTSC issued two letters June 29 detailing alleged violations during the 2002-2004 cleanup, including alleged illegal dumping of more than 3,000 truckloads of contaminated soil from university property into the massive mound of buried contaminated earth at Campus Bay.
The soil contained mercury, arsenic, zinc, cadmium, selenium, PCBs and copper at levels above the state thresholds for toxic materials.
Doreen S. Moreno, a UC Berkeley Governmental and Community Affairs analyst, spoke near the end of the monthly meeting of the Richmond Southeast Shoreline Area Community Advisory Group (CAG) to read a prepared statement.
Moments after Moreno described the illegal dumping violations as “alleged deficiencies in meeting administrative requirements” and not a current health risk, attorney Peter Weiner rose to challenge her claim.
What the DTSC had charged were not simply “administrative violations” but substantive problems, punishable by up to nine years in jail for each count, Weiner said.
A senior attorney with the international law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, Weiner typically represents major developers. But in Richmond, he is representing the community activists of Bay Area Residents for Responsible Development (BARRD).
Weiner said he was also concerned with allegations raised minutes earlier by Claudette Begin, vice president of Local 7 of the Coalition of University Employees (CUE), which represents UCB clerical workers, including those at the field station.
Begin charged that a number of union workers suffered health problems during the cleanup, “and when they spoke up, they were driven out.” As a result, she said, “people are not interested in speaking up. That’s the level of intimidation that’s gone on.”
Her voice breaking with emotion, she said she felt personally responsible for the plight of workers, including those she said had warned of arsenic contamination at the RFS Forest Products Lab.
“The university has denied in the past that there were arsenic problems,” she said.
But those claims were substantiated earlier in the meeting by Barbara Cook, DTSC’s active statewide head of cleanup operations, who said that the discovery of hazardous levels of arsenic at the surface in the lab area pose “a potential imminent threat to people working at the complex.”
Cook’s staff is reviewing a cleanup plan submitted by the university and will issue a public notice before the actual cleanup of an estimated 85 cubic yards of earth is removed and hauled to the licensed Kettleman Hills hazardous waste facility near King City.
Weiner said he was concerned about allegations that the university may not have informed employees about the potential hazards to employees during the cleanup at Campus Bay, and said the state labor code bars any punitive action toward workers who complain about possible job safety issues.
Field station workers and BARRD activist and CAG member Sherry Padgett have also charged that the university has failed to conduct an adequate investigation of hazardous materials at the site, and Padgett has alleged that the presence of a highly contaminated toxic “hot spot” immediately adjacent to the RFS is cause for concern.
Douglas Moesteller, an executive of Cherokee Investment Partners, told the CAG about plans to clean up the hot spot, a site measuring about 200 feet by 30 feet.
Michelle Kriegman-King, a vice president and environmental engineer with the consulting firm Erler & Kalinowski, described the plans in detail for a site with high levels of toxic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and pesticides.
Rejecting a plan that would call only for excavating and removing some of the contaminated earth while capping the rest and leaving it in place, Kriegman-King said all the earth would be removed.
Two scientific consultants working for the CAG under a grant provided by Cherokee Simeon Ventures, the special purpose corporation created to develop the site, are urging caution—and are calling for comprehensive testing of the site for radioactive waste before any further work is done at the site.
Dorinda Shipman of Treadwell & Rollo and Adrienne LaPierre of Iris Environmental are working under contract to the CAG, as is a court reporting service—all paid for by the Campus Bay developers and negotiated with Weiner’s assistance, a first in the history of DTSC’s CAG system.
Newly emerging information has also revealed that experiments with melting and coating uranium at the Stauffer Chemical plants were much more extensive than previously revealed, and a document produced as the result of lawsuits against tobacco manufacturers has revealed that radioactive polonium in cigarettes produced by the Philip Morris Co. was traced to a superphosphate fertilizer produced at the site.
The confidential Feb. 25, 1976, inter-office memorandum recounts a visit by a tobacco company executive to the Stauffer plant which confirmed the fertilizer as the probable source of the deadly substance.
The memo also alleges that a federally funded University of Virginia scientist who had sided with the tobacco company’s claims that the material was harmless and not proven otherwise would continue to do so because he “knows where his bread is buttered.”
That document is available online at http://tobaccodocuments.org/landman/139670.html.
Dr. Michael Esposito, a retired UC Berkeley scientist who serves on the CAG’s Toxics Committee, said he is especially worried about polonium because it emits alpha particles, potentially the most deadly form of radiation but impossible to detect using surface Geiger counters used in previous tests at the site.
The metal was used to fatally poison former Soviet KGB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko in London last year.
He said he was also concerned because tests for other radioactive elements, including groundwater tests for uranium, were incomplete, and many used outdated water samples which prevented accurate measurement of radon gas, a product of radioactive decay.
An angry Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, said that the discoveries of additional work with uranium and other radioactive elements at the site had confirmed the claims of CAG member Ethel Dotson. “Practically everyone made it seem like she was crazy, but she was on point,” Clark said.
Dotson has been stricken with cancer, which she has attributed to a childhood spent growing up near the Stauffer complex.
Esposito said that all site maps should now carry the footprints of the vanished chemical plant buildings, given that an increasing number of structures have been identified as the site of work with radioactive materials.
The CAG, created by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, is advising the agency about cleanup of contaminated sites. It was formed after activists from BARRD, the West County Toxics Coalition, the Richmond Progressive Alliance and nearby neighborhoods grew alarmed over cleanup activities at the two sites.
Polluted by a complex of plants which manufactured toxic chemicals at Campus Bay for a century and a munitions plant at the RFS, the sites were being rehabilitated by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board before the activists set to work.
Concerned about potential hazards from the clouds of dust generated by the factory demolition and soil work and frustrated at dealing with an agency which had no scientists trained in handling toxic materials, activists pressed for a regulatory handover to the DTSC, enlisting the support of Assemblymember Loni Hancock and the Richmond City Council.
The eventual result was a handover of jurisdiction by the water board to the DTSC, which is well-staffed with toxicologists.
The 2002-2004 Campus Bay cleanup was conducted by an Emeryville company which had been headed by a former water board staff member, while the university devised its own cleanup.
UC Berkeley’s plans to build an academic/corporate research park at the field station, with up to 1.5 million square feet of new buildings, have been stalled by change in state agencies and the ensuing tightened regulatory regime.