“We have something to celebrate and something to mourn,” Joe Robinson told fellow members of the citizen panel advising the state on toxic cleanups in southern Richmond.
Members of the Richmond Southeast Shoreline Community Advisory Group (CAG) gathered Thursday night in City Council chambers to lament the loss of community activist Ethel Dotson and to hail a legislative victory by Assemblymember Loni Hancock.
Dotson died Nov. 1 of cancer she believed had been caused by chemical contaminants from the sites she had formed the CAG to oversee, and it was Hancock who helped forced the change in regulatory oversight that enabled the CAG to come into being.
Dotson was an outspoken woman who dressed flamboyantly and campaigned incessantly for the rights of fellow Richmond residents who had lived near the city’s many chemical-spewing plants and factories.
During the last CAG meeting Hancock attended, in November 2006, Dotson told the legislator that she had just been diagnosed with cancer and told she had about a year to live.
A Louisiana native, Dotson came to Richmond with her family as a toddler in 1944, and spent her childhood in Seaport Village (also known as the Seaport War Apartment), a segregated residential complex for war industry workers.
Just across the fence to the northwest, at the site now known as Campus Bay, a complex of chemical plants churned out products ranging from fertilizers and pesticides to munitions and blasting caps.
African Americans lived in the 494-unit housing complex until 1956, when it was demolished.
Speaking at Thursday night’s CAG meeting, Hancock said her involvement began with a call from Contra Costa County Public Health Director Dr. Wendel Brunner. Alerted by Dotson to massive dust generated during the demolition of excavations at the former Stauffer Chemical site, Brunner called the legislator.
“He said there’s a cleanup going on down here and we have to do something right away,” Hancock said.
Dotson and other activists, including Sherry Padgett (who works nearby) and Marina Bay resident and UC Berkeley professor Claudia Carr, began organizing, joined by others like Dr. Henry Clark of the West County Toxics Coalition and Richmond Progressive Alliance activist and future Mayor Gayle McLaughlin.
JoAnne Tilmon, another activist whose family lived nearby, has said 11 of her family members have died, and another—an aunt—is suffering from cancer. “I’m very skeptical of DTSC,” said Tilmon. “I want to make sure we’re doing the best for the community.”
Demonstrations, protests and endless pleas to the Richmond City Council and the legislature resulted in a Nov. 6, 2004 hearing of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety & Toxic Materials at the Richmond Field Station.
A major victory emerged from the hearing, when the San Francisco Bay regional Water Quality Control Board agreed to relinquish oversight of the cleanups to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).
Both UC Berkeley, owner of the adjacent Richmond Field Station, and the partnership developing the former Stauffer Chemical site had opposed any change in oversight.
The water boards have no provisions for public input during the cleanup process, while the DTSC has a provision for creating CAGs if a community member gathers enough signatures on petitions.
Dotson spearheaded the drive to create the CAG, and became its founding member when the DTSC created the body, which held its first meeting on June 30, 2005.
Her brother, Whitney, was to become the CAG’s chair.
“Ethel worked very hard to put this CAG together,” said Robinson.
“I don’t think anyone could fill Ethel’s slot,” said CAG member Eric Blum.
Dotson, 65 when she died at home in the company of her family, had fought relentlessly to expose the extent of contamination resulting from the south Richmond plants.
Dotson had battled for the handover of the site from the water board to the DTSC not only because the toxics agency has provisions for public input, but also because the water boards have no toxicologists on their staffs.
Instead, the boards rely entirely for scientific expertise on consulting firms hired by site developers. The DTSC, by contrast, is staffed by scientists trained in recognizing chemical hazards and their consequences.
She insisted that radioactive materials had been used at the Stauffer site, a claim initially derided by some.
During July’s CAG meeting, Henry Clark said that the discoveries of additional work with uranium and other radioactive elements at the site had confirmed her claims.
“Practically everyone made it seem like she was crazy, but she was on point,” Clark said.
Initial reports that a small test of melting uranium with an electron beam occurred at the chemical plant site have led to the discovery of more documentation indicating that more extensive testing may have taken place, including an account reporting that larger amounts of radioactive nuclear reactor fuel capsules may have been treated at the site.
Another concern arises from the processing of so-called superphosphate fertilizers at the site, which are manufactured from ores that typically contain significant amounts of radioactive
The Campus Bay development firm Cherokee Simeon Ventures—the partnership of an investment firm and a San Francisco developer—is currently preparing a radiation survey of the site, and additional testing is planned for the adjacent Richmond Field Station.
The CAG’s progress hasn’t been without its bumps, and Clark and Tilmon have been absent from recent meetings.
Dotson had fought to keep the CAG from expanding its focus to other sites in the area, arguing instead that the group should seek justice and financial reimbursement for those who may have been sickened by chemical exposures there.
But the CAG gradually extended its purview and now encompasses Marina Bay to the northwest and other sites to the southeast.
Dotson’s environmental activism wasn’t limited to the chemical plant site and her childhood neighborhood. She also targeted emissions from Chevron’s refinery, the city’s largest employer. She fought unsuccessfully to have to state or federal agencies test the blood of Richmond residents for toxic chemical exposure, and she testified and gave comments to state legislators and city councilmembers.
“My whole life, my whole perspective has changed now,” she told the state Environmental Protection Agency’s Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice on May 24, 2004.
“That’s why we’re all angry,” she said. “You all have a responsibility. You have been covering up ... My brother—all—the whole family is sick. My sister died of cancer in ‘85. It goes on and on. People need some services now.”
Many of the questions she raised remained unanswered. But she raised them, and she made herself heard.
Wendel Brunner, unable to attend because of a conference, said in an e-mail to the CAG. “We should remind everyone that Ethel raised the issue of the (Campus Bay) site and the problems with the Regional Water Quality Control Board years earlier than most of the rest of us.”
A long way
“We have come such a very, very long way,” said Hancock.
The lawmaker had come to the CAG to celebrate the passage of legislation that stemmed directly from her experience with the Richmond sites.
AB 422, signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last month, tightens regulatory authority over toxic sites and requires state regional water boards to follow the same standards for water cleanup already enforced by the DTSC.
Another key provision requires regulators to examine the potential for penetration of new buildings on cleaned-up hazardous waste sites by dangerous volatile organic compounds rising from the soil beneath.
“The bill has gone through many permutations,” Hancock said.
Encountering stiff opposition from the real estate development community, the measure stalled in the legislative process during her first effort to win passage. Then last year, after legislators in both houses voted approval, Gov. Schwarzenegger opted for a veto before signing the bill the second time around.
“It says very simply that human health is a mandate for both the water board and for the DTSC in brownfields,” she said.
Brownfields are contaminated sites that are remediated to the point when they can be developed.
“It is a tremendous victory,” Hancock said, “a step forward not only for this community but for every community in the state of California.”
Thursday night’s meeting ended with a moment of silence in Dotson’s honor.