Health Concerns Remain Over Richmond Cleanups

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday September 18, 2007

Government health officials who contend there’s no evidence of toxic health threats to most workers at UC Berkeley’s Richmond Field Station (RFS) found themselves before a skeptical audience Thursday. 

Contra Costa County Public Health Director Dr. Wendel Brunner and a team from the state Department of Health Services presented their findings to the citizen panel keeping watch over the cleanup of contaminated sites along the southern Richmond shoreline. 

The Community Advisory Group (CAG) was created by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the state agency overseeing the cleanups. 

The DTSC was brought in after community activists demanded they replace the previous regulatory body, San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. 

The two largest sites under the CAG’s purview are the university property and the adjacent Campus Bay site—both of which once housed plants that manufactured dangerous chemicals. 

The lead item of the CAG’s agenda was the 99-page Public Health Assessment of RFS compiled by the state and county team. 

Presenting the results were the two physicians on the team, Brunner and Rick Kreutzer, chief of the state agency’s Environmental Health Investigations Branch (EHIB). 

“There is no significant risk to anybody,” Kreutzer said, with the exception of workers who dig in contaminated soil still present at RFS and children who might spend thousands of hours playing in parts of Stege Marsh. 

That said, the two doctors said major parts of the property hadn’t been adequately tested, pointing in particular to an area of the property near a known hot spot of Campus Bay infested with a hazardous brew of toxins. 

Another potential threat arises from three possible sources of radioactive contamination: manufacture of phosphate fertilizers at Campus Bay, a process that concentrates radioactive components naturally found in phosphate ores; processing of uranium metal at Campus Bay, and the possible dumping of radioactive waste from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) at RFS. 

Brunner said that was a “legitimate concern” about phosphates manufacturing which would require further investigation to see if underground water at RFS may have been contaminated. 

Michael Esposito, a retired LBNL scientist who chairs the CAG’s Toxics Committee, said the CAG wanted to know more about the two other potential sources of radiation. 

Rick Alcaraz, a retired RFS employee, said he participated in dumping barrels of waste from LBNL and identified the site where a DTSC consultant identified the presence of buried metal about 30 feet beneath the surface. 

Barbara Cook, DTSC’s statewide cleanup operations branch chief, said plans are under way for a dig at the site to identify what set off the magnetometers. 

While Brunner and Kreutzer said the field station doesn’t pose current risks to workers who don’t dig in contaminated soil or children who don’t spent a cumulative 2,000 hours playing in the marshland, many CAG members remained skeptical. 

The scientists acknowledged that there is no current way to assess the potential additive effects of exposures to a variety of toxins, and Sherry Padgett expressed the concerns of other members worried about the impacts of exposures on people with compromised immune systems. 

Brunner also acknowledged the concerns of CAG member Eric Blum that the report didn’t account for past exposures during the years when chemical manufacturing was at its peak during an era when environmental regulations were either lax or non-existent. 

RFS workers and those who work in businesses near the Campus Bay site have repeatedly expressed their concerns about potential toxic exposures during the earlier cleanups at both sites when large dust clouds blanketed the area. 

Anger generated during that cleanup helped sparked the protests that led to the DTSC takeover. 

Brunner and Kreutzer also stressed that the RFS site itself hadn’t been fully “characterized”—meaning that comprehensive testing of all areas of the site remains to be finished. Both said they don’t expect to find any area more hazardous than those already identified. 

While the assessment called for monitoring dust around the margins of the site for potentials hazards during future cleanup operations, Richmond librarian Tarnel Abbott asked why monitors weren’t scheduled for placement at locations in the interior of the field station. 

“That’s a good point,” said Marilyn Underwood, chief of the EHIB’s Site Assessment Branch. 

Peter Weiner, the San Francisco attorney who has been volunteering his time on behalf of the CAG’s efforts, thanked the health experts, but stressed that he wanted to know what they could do to make sure the whole site is fully investigated to make sure all who worked at or lived near the site knew what their real risks were. 

He said he was concerned that UC Berkeley had declined to participate in the CAG’s activities, and had dismissed past illegal dumping of wastes at Campus Bay as simply paperwork violations. 


Marsh questions 

Under a unique arrangement negotiated by Weiner, Cherokee-Simeon Ventures, the owner of Campus Bay, has agreed to fund the CAG in connection with oversight of its cleanup efforts at the site. 

During Thursday night’s session, a consultant hired with their funds raised questions about the cleanup of Stege Marsh along the site’s bayside shoreline. 

Stewart Siegel, who trained as a student at RFS, is a scientist with Treadwell & Rollo, Inc., an environmental and geotechnical consulting firm based in San Francisco. 

While contaminated marsh soils had been removed and replaced with clean soil drawn from other areas of the bay, Siegel said that future contamination remains a threat. 

“The more I look at the data, the more likely it seems” the marsh will be contaminated again—so long as the 350,000 cubic yards of waste still buried at the site aren’t removed, he said. 

Under the water board’s oversight, a cleanup plan allowed for the burial rather than removal of most of the hazardous material on the site—now temporarily capped with a mixture of paper and concrete. 

Water drains out of the buried waste through a biologically active barrier which is supposed to capture most of the hazardous materials. But the marsh water contains elevated levels of selenium and mercury, Siegel said, which can concentrate in the soil because of limited drainage. 

Siegel said the project was also completed using incorrect tide level data. “The data is absolutely wrong” by about a foot, he said.