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Few Defend UC Lab in Heated Meeting on EIR

By Richard Brenneman
Friday August 10, 2007

Berkeley residents came to share concerns about the fuel on the hill Wednesday night, and by the time the meeting had ended, only one voice had been raised in its unconditional defense. 

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) officials called the gathering to collect comments to be addressed in the environmental impact reviews of two major projects already greenlighted by the UC Board of Regents. 

The harshest critiques were leveled at the $160 million 160,000-square-foot Helios Energy Research Facility and its primary use as the designated home of the $500 million Energy Biosciences Institute, the alternative fuel research program bankrolled by BP, the rebranded British Petroleum. 

But other speakers, including many long-time Berkeley land use activists, questioned the wisdom of building anything on an environmentally sensitive earthquake-, landslide- and fire-prone hillside still contaminated by past projects conducted under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). 


Helios, EBI 

Wednesday night’s hearings focused on the Helios building and the Computational Research and Theory (CRT) building, a $90.4 million, 140,000-square-foot, 300-office state-of-the art computing research center. 

Between them, the structures will house facilities for 800 researchers housed at either end of the 203-acre LBNL campus—the Helios building to the east, the CRT facility to the west. 

While Terry Powell—who runs community relations for the lab—said Wednesday night’s meeting would focus on environmental issues, and not the science conducted in the buildings, the lab’s first speaker sailed straight into scientific waters. 

EBI program manager Elaine Chandler is a theoretical physicist who formerly worked in Defense Technologies at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and, before that in Washington as an advisor to the DOE’s assistant secretary of defense programs. 

“Many of our scientists are very concerned about global warming,” she said. “We’re very committed at the lab to getting this problem solved one way or another.” 

“This requires no arable land,” she said, adding, “We have 100 million acres of croplands not being used for food.” 

Chandler said one project under development in the Helios program’s Solar Energy Research Center focuses on using nanotechnology to capture water and carbon dioxide molecules from the air and developing catalysts to split them up into their component atoms for use as fuel. 

“We want to breakdown CO2 and scarf up that carbon to make fuel,” she said. 

Michael Banda led off the discussion of the programs to be housed in the CRT building, starting with the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, a major center for non-classified research requiring massive computing power. 

Slated to outgrow its leased quarters in Oakland by 2010, the facility will be housed on the lowest level of a purpose-built structure near the lab’s Blackberry gate. 

CRT project director Les Dutton described more details of the building itself, while Jeff Philliber, the lab’s environmental planner, focused on the mechanics of the process that will produce first a draft environmental impact report by early October, followed by the final EIR in early January 2008, slightly more than a week before final approval by UC Board Regents in mid-January. 

Construction of the Helios building would commence in spring, 2008, with completion expected by autumn, 2010, he said. CRT construction would start in December, 2008, with a February 2011 date set for the facility’s opening. 


Public weighs in 

The first speaker, UCB Chemistry professor David Chandler, was the only speaker to offer unalloyed praise for the lab’s agenda. “I’m very grateful that Steve Chu came to Berkeley to run the lab . . . and Helios,” he said. 

Chandler, who said he had “decided to spend my time trying to help the world,” is also the spouse of physicist Elaine Chandler, who had spoken minutes before in her role as EBI program manager. 

From there on, it was all downhill for the lab. 

“You guys have no concept how insulting it is for you to lay out a six-month schedule for doing something without even consulting us first,” said George Oram. 

“What can’t it be in the middle of Nevada, or in Merced?” he said. “Why haven’t you talked at all about why all these buildings have to be up there on the hillsides?” 

Oram drew applause when he described the proposals as “ill-conceived a project as I have ever reviewed, and that includes Bus Rapid Transit.” 

Next up was Daily Planet Arts and Calendar Editor Anne Wagley, who said she was disturbed at “the lack of coordination with the City of Berkeley” over other university-related projects, including the extensive development program planned just down the hill from the lab at Memorial Stadium. 

Wagley said she was also concerned at the costs new construction would impose on the city for roads, sewers and other taxpayer-funded services, and at the notion that taxpayers had to help pay for research that would benefit “a for-profit corporation like British Petroleum.” 

Gianna Ranuzzi thank the lab “for providing a wonderful rallying point for the citizens of Berkeley.” Her concerns included impacts of the Strawberry Creek watershed, and the possible health risks from demolitions at the lab and from the technology that is used at the lab. 

“It’s the wrong place,” she said. You’re making a terrible mistake. Welcome Chernobyl.” 

Rather than build near the Hayward Fault, which is “just waiting for the big one, have you considered the existing and empty buildings at the Mare Island Shipyard?” asked Martha Nicoloff, who brought pictures of the structures. 


BP focus 

Next up, and clutching a “STOP BP” sign, was Ayr, one of the activists who has been supporting the ongoing tree sit at Memorial Stadium, who demanded a one-year moratorium on development at the lab. 

“Let’s make it clear they are talking about genetically modified organisms,” he said, referring to EBI’s plan to tweak the genes of plants and microbes in hopes of produce cheaper, more efficient transportation fuels. “They are just furthering the whole push toward narrow, limited thinking that is destroying whole ecosystems, especially in the global South.” 

“Helios is supposed to mean sun, but there’s not a whole lot of sunshine in here,” said Merilee Mitchell. “But there is radiation.” 

BP critic Francisco Ramos, a graduate students in astrophysics at Cal, said that while he wasn’t opposed to science, “I am against the anti-ethical application of science. Listen to the scientists, but not the ones driven by greed. BP has a dark past, but what I’m worried about is a dark present.” 

Jason Hamadi cited the role played by BP in its earlier incarnation as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in the CIA-conducted overthrow of Iranian premier Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 after the democratically elected leader moved to nationalize Iran’s oil supply. 

Anna Aguirre, 74, assailed “the arrogance of UC” in failing to provide paper copies of the proposals at the meeting. “I also worry about the fact that everybody here involved in this, they’re all anglos. There are no African Americans. No Asians. Everybody’s an anglo.” 

Just-graduated UCB student Hillary Lehr, one of the organizers of the first campus teach-in against the BP project, faulted the BP proposal because “There is not a global environmental impact report. There is no global justice policy. I want a global EIR on the products produced by EBI,” she said. 

Gene Bernardi reminded the audience that the DOE had once been named the Atomic Energy Commission, then faulted the scoping report prepared for the meeting for failing “to say a word about the involvement of British Petroleum.” 

Mason Murthi said he was “sick and tired of hearing some of the rhetoric” used by EBI backers. “Steve Chu said ‘this will be our mission to save the world,’” a phrase Murthi said reminded him of colonialist rhetoric used by Europeans in the past to justify conquering other lands. 

“This is not BP’s university, this is not your university,” he told lab officials. “This is not the Anglo-Saxon elite’s university. This is our university.” 

Doug Buckwald charged the university with poor environmental stewardship,” and Zachary Running Wolf, who started the Memorial Stadium tree sit, told audience members, “We need to not trust British Petroleum. We need to build our own mass transportation.” 

Then came a moment of comic relief. Clad in dress and an outrageous blonde wig, rhinestone-studded specs and a dainty watch—in addition to a healthy five o’clock shadow—and speaking in a pseudo-Italian accent, “Heloise Lamplighter” told the lab folks that before building something new, “You gotta clean-uppa the mess you made-a first. You gotta big-a mess over there in-a Richmond. Maybe you oughta clean upa you big messes first.” 


General concerns 

Mark McDonald said the university should first “clean up all the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and clean up all the (radioactive) tritium” at the lab before starting new projects. But since the DOE was the ultimate stakeholder at the lab, “our tax dollars are no object,” with no reimbursement for the use of city roads and other services. 

Janice Thomas, who lives nearby on Panoramic Hill, called the lab “scorched earth,” noting that trout and salmon had long since vanished from Strawberry Creek. “We are going to stop it,” she said. “We have to stop it.” 

Thomas also faulted the health-risk assessment of the lab’s Long Range Development Plan for failing to address health risks from nanotechnology and GMOs. 

Pamela Shivola of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste presented detailed charts of faults, contamination plumes, waterways and other features of the lad site—which she called a “a nuclear, nano-technology industrial complex.” 

Development should be located not on the hillside riddled with active faults but in alternative locations, she said. 

Barbara Robben, who graduated from Berkeley with a degree in geology and soil science, said she was concerned both about the dangers of building in a seismic hot spot and with the implications of EBI science for the soils of the world. “The technology they’re striving for is really, really scary,” she said. 

While speakers were allotted three minutes to make their cases, Powell allowed Shivola, Buckwald and Mitchell five more minutes each after all other speakers had finished. 

At the end of the meeting, speakers and lab officials polished off an assortment of Costco cookies and apple juice the lab had provided.