State Cites Health Hazards at Richmond Field Station

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday September 11, 2007

Hazardous metals and chemicals at UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station pose potential threats to the health of children who play in its marshland and workers who dig in its soil, state scientists have concluded. 

Their findings are contained in a 99-page report by the California Department of Public Health conducted at the request of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). 

Community members advising the state on the toxic cleanup at UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station (RFS) meet Thursday to consider the report. 

The meeting, held in Richmond City Council chambers at 1401 Marina Way South, formally opens at 6:30 p.m. 

The Community Advisory Group (CAG) was created at the request of local environmental and health activists after the DTSC took control of cleanup operations at the university site and the adjacent Campus Bay site. 

Both shoreline properties have long histories of contamination by chemical plants that once churned out an array of hazardous substances ranging from pesticides to explosives. 

CAG Chair Whitney Dotson said he’s not satisfied with the state report. “There needs to be a more thorough analysis of some of the issues, including past exposures and the possibility of radiation contamination,” he said. 

The deadline for submission of comments is Sept. 24. 

The final report, which will include all the comments as well as any changes made as a result of the comments, will be posted on the state agency’s website, said Ken August, a spokesperson for the department. 

The report contains no enforcement provisions. “Scientists make findings and sometimes they make recommendations,” August said. Enforcement actions would be up to state legislators or the UC Board of Regents, he said. 

The final report, including comments and changes, will be submitted to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry, the arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which funded the assessment. 

The document will also be posted on the state website, and may—or may not—be added to the federal agency’s website, August said, adding that the state wasn’t sure why some assessments were posted by the feds while others were not. 


Report findings 

According to the report, public health hazards do exist for children and teenagers who play regularly in West Stege Marsh, where toxic metals and the organic compound PCB are present in groundwater and soil sediments. Because of the risks, marsh access should remain restricted. 

Maintenance workers who regularly dig in contaminated soils also face a variety of risks and should wear respiratory protection equipment during their work. 

The report also identified two areas where health hazards were described as indeterminate, pending further investigation. 

The first involves areas of West Stege Marsh where remediation efforts have already occurred. The potential dangers come from radioactive materials generated at the adjacent Campus Bay site which may have migrated into the imported soils along with other hazardous substances. 

The second potential set of hazards comes from indoor air contamination after two buildings recorded unsafe levels of formaldehyde between September and October 2005. Further studies are needed to determine the source and extent of the potential threat. 

The one area where investigators declared no hazard exists was from past exposures to airborne mercury during cleanup work in the summer of 2003. 

But the authors outlined nine specific areas where more work was needed. They included: 

• Monitoring dust levels during all further work at the site.  

• Conducting additional groundwater tests along the eastern and northeastern margins of the site to determine the potential for water-borne contaminants to appear as vapor inside buildings in the area. 

• A program of annual water and sampling in the shoreline marsh to detect any intrusion of contaminants from the Campus Bay site, which should continue until the sites have been fully remediated. 

• Testing to determine whether radioactive materials from Campus Bay have contaminated soils, sediments and water in West Stege Marsh. 

• Additional tests of the buildings where earlier sampling found airborne formaldehyde. 

• More tests throughout the university property to identify all areas which may have been contaminated, with specific tests called for involving materials used at the university’s Forest Products Lab. 

• Provision of current maps to all RFS staff showing locations of all buildings, present and past, along with levels of contaminants found there. 

• Training programs for workers in the proper ways to handle contaminated soil, and 

• Annual training to help staff identify contaminated iron pyrite cinders that were dumped on the property from the sulfuric acid plant that once existed at Campus Bay. 


Complex history 

Long-standing concerns by Richmond residents, lab employees and people who work and live near the two sites overcame strong resistance to a change in regulatory oversight. 

A university official told the Richmond City Council that calls for a handover at RFS arose from confusion of the site with Campus Bay—a remark that drew gasps from the activists, who had been targeting the university along with the developers of Campus Bay. 

Until the aroused community members began demonstrating, flooding meetings and barraging local and state elected officials with demands for change, cleanup efforts at both sites had been under the supervision of the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. 

Whitney Dotson and his sister Ethel were among the protesters, as were Sherry Padgett and Richmond Progressive Alliance member and future councilmember and present Mayor Gayle McLaughlin. 

Both Ethel Dotson and Padgett have suffered from health problems they suspect are linked to exposure to chemicals from the shoreline sites. 

What initially aroused the activists were the massive dust clouds generated during cleanup operations at the site when the water board was in charge. Their concern turned to anger when they discovered that the regulatory agency didn’t have any scientists on its staff who were experts in toxic substances and the hazards they pose. 

Oversight was handed off to the DTSC, which is well-staffed with experts, after calls by Assemblymembers Loni Hancock and Cindy Montanez and a vote by the Richmond City Council. 

The DTSC brought in the state public health experts soon after the handover. 

The draft report is available on the Internet at www.ehib.org/cma/projects/RFSPHAPC.pdf.