Hearings Focus on UC-BP Deal, Computer Labs

By Richard Brenneman
Friday August 03, 2007

People concerned about impacts of two planned Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) buildings—one housing the controversial BP-funded Energy Bioscience Institute (EBI)—can raise their questions during a special meeting Wednesday night. 

The two-hour Aug. 8 meeting is a scoping session to gather comments which much be addressed an the environmental impact report (EIR) prepared for each of the structures. 

The larger of the two structures, the Helios Energy Research Facility, will house the labs and offices of the EBI, a $500 million research program into synthetic fuels funded by the company once known as British Petroleum. 

According to the university prospectus which captured the grant, most of the research will focus on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), in the form of crops designed to yield fuels (so-called feedstocks) and altered microbes designed to convert the plants into refinable fuels. 

The EBI project resulted in small but vocal student protests, heated dissent among faculty and a vote by the university’s Academic Senate, which resulted in endorsement of the grant. 

EBI documents specify 90,000 square feet of space for the institute, leaving the remainder for other energy-related projects. Cost of that structure is estimated at $160 million. 

The second project under review is the Computational Research and Theory (CRT) building, a $90.4 million, 140,000-square-foot, 300-office state-of-the art computing research center. 

The buildings are located at opposite ends of the LBNL campus, with the Helios building on the slope above Strawberry Creek at the eastern end of the complex and the CRT building near Blackberry Gate at the western end. 

Lab expansion plans have drawn the fire of neighbors, who fear the impacts of congestion and additional construction on narrow roadways in an area subject to the hazards of fire, earthquake and mudslides, and environmentalists concerned about destruction of delicate habitat and the dangers of building in an area with a long history of soil and groundwater contamination. 

Congestion fears have been compounded by UC Berkeley plans to add a 452,000 square feet of new campus construction immediately below the lab—a proposal which has triggered suits by the city, neighbors and environmentalists. 

Pamela Shivola, spokesperson for the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste, argues that new construction at the lab should be delayed pending a detailed investigation of seismic and toxic hazards at the lab. 

The committee contracted a detailed report on known hazards by geomorphologist Laurel Collins; that document and others are posted on the committee’s website at www.cmtwberkeley.org. 

The lab’s own environmental documents can be found at www.lbl.gov/Community/Helios/ and www.lbl.gov/Community/CRT/. 

The meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. Wed., Aug. 8, in the North Berkeley Senior Center, 1901 Hearst Ave. at Martin Luther King Jr. Way.