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Helios, BP Program Draw Fire from Public During Environmental Hearing

By Richard Brenneman
Friday December 21, 2007
Berkeley environmentalist Sylvia McLaughlin, who turns 91 next week, spoke at a public hearing Monday to criticize the Helios building planned for LBNL and the research that will happen there. Photograph by Richard Brenneman.
Berkeley environmentalist Sylvia McLaughlin, who turns 91 next week, spoke at a public hearing Monday to criticize the Helios building planned for LBNL and the research that will happen there. Photograph by Richard Brenneman.

The planned BP biofuel lab, designed to house a multinational oil giant’s $500 million research program, means profits without honor, Berkeley residents declared Monday night. 

Every speaker who commented during the 150-minute Draft Environmental Impact Report hearing had harsh things to say about the Helios building at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL). 

Critics targeted the lab’s location on the hillside above Strawberry Canyon, its impacts on the city of Berkeley and the potential local and global impacts of the research planned there by one of the world’s leading oil companies. 

The principal tenant of the $150 million facility will be the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), the research program funded by BP which draws on researchers from UC Berkeley, LBNL and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

Using genetic technology, BP hopes the program will develop patented crops they can plant in Third World nations to be converted by genetically engineered microbes into fuels to power the world’s cars, trucks, buses and planes. 

Other projects planned under the EBI banner include microbes to harvest otherwise inaccessible oil from nearly depleted wells and to transform coal into vehicle fuels. 

Many speakers referred to the existing problems of soil and water contamination by radioactive tritium and the toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). 

Leading off the criticism was retired UC Berkeley engineering professor John Shiveley, whose credentials included stints at the lab and as the university’s principal engineer, with design responsibility for projects on- and off-campus. He said that the choice of sites was “a major mistake” that combined with a second imposing structure planned for the lab would be certain to create significant transportation problems. 

The university’s Richmond Field Station offered a far better site, he said, and travel times from the main campus would be only five minutes longer to the Richmond site than to the hillside location. 

“Totally inappropriate,” said Berkeley environmentalist Sylvia McLaughlin, commenting on the Strawberry Creek site for the Helios lab, citing fire danger, unstable soil, the proximity to the Hayward fault and overburdened streets. 

McLaughlin, who turns 91 next week, also cautioned about potential contamination from research with genetically modified organisms (GMOs) at the lab, and said the facility would be better located along the new regional “Green Corridor” closer to the bay shoreline. 

Terri Compost brought a pitcher of Strawberry Creek water, which she offered to the lab officials. If you trust the university to protect the environment, she said, “feel free to partake of our water.” 

She also asked if the public would have access to the nature and dangers of research being conducted at the laboratory, predicting “a grim future” in a world with GMOs. 


New Dust Bowl? 

Besides questions raised by the site itself, Barbara Robben said, other environmental impacts domestically could be a move now underway in Washington to open up formerly closed fallow lands to fuel crops, which raises the specter of a new Dust Bowl, and she said global planting raises even more questions. 

During the drought years in the 1930s , vast dust storms swept the American heartland, triggered in part by erosion spawned by the farming of environmentally senstive areas. Subsequent federal programs created reserves for the land, and compensated farmers with payments. 

“I would like you to address where you are going to grow these crops,” Robben said. 

Phila Rogers, who retired from LBNL after 20 years of part-time work as a science writer during “a kinder, gentler time,” said that the Audubon Society’s annual bird survey the day before had found 53 species in the canyon, including the Golden Eagle. Six endangered species nest in the area, she said. 

Locate the lab somewhere else, she urged, rather than in “this incredible riparian resource that can enrich our lives and those of the creatures that choose to live there.” 

Nancy Schimmel, who has been walking trails in Strawberry Canyon since she first came to Cal as a freshman in 1952, said the building “is not going to do enough good in the world to offset the damage to the canyon.” 

“Climate change is being expropriated by Big Oil,” she concluded. 

UC Berkeley student Peter Ralph asked for a specific evaluation of the life forms to be engineered at the lab and an account of what steps would be taken to prevent plants like miscanthus—a fast-growing relative of sugar cane—and GMO microbes that play a key role in research plans from escaping into the canyon environment. 

Amy Beaton, who regularly appears at protests clad as a cheerleader for the “BP Bears,” asked to see specific plans “before this world is further exposed.” 


Shuttles cut 

Phil Price, another lab employee, said it was painful to hear the lab boasting of its role in developing energy-saving technology when LBNL had cut the shuttle service mandated in its earlier Long Range Development Plan as a mitigation for the facility’s environmental impacts. 

He said other sites with buildings already earmarked for demolition would be better options than a pristine site, and accused the institution of manipulating its EIR by posing intentionally unworkable options as the legally required alternatives. 

“I approve of the research,” he said, “but the lab can go elsewhere, or to the Richmond Field Station.” 

“This machine needs to be stopped, period,” said Zachary Running Wolf, the Native American activist who inaugurated the ongoing tree-sit at Memorial Stadium. “They’re proposing to rape” the Amazon and Central America, he said, referring to possible sites for planting the fuel crops developed at the lab. 

“I am concerned that a public school is being influenced by a corporation,” he said. 

“BP actually stands for Bloody Profit,” said Marcella Sadowski, a UC Berkeley student. “Where is this stuff going to be planted?” she asked. BP has already displaced indigenous peoples in Colombia in its search for oil, and more would be displaced in that country and throughout the Amazon basin by GMO fuel crops, she said. 

“This money is covered with the blood of indigenous people,” she said, adding that BP’s past record in other countries needed to be addressed. 

Tom Kelly said the lab—if it’s built at all—should be sited in the Richmond Field Station. And when it is built, construction should be to the highest, Platinum, environmental certification, not the easily obtained lower Silver ranking as currently planned. 

“This is not the place another building should be built in what should be a pristine Strawberry Creek watershed,” a site with a history of landslide and “crisscrossed with earthquake faults,” said Gene Bernardi of the Committee to Minimize Toxic Waste. 

She said British Petroleum—BP’s earlier corporate name—was working with lab officials to make the lab and university “more privatized and corporatized than it was before.” 

“We shouldn’t be taking away land used by indigenous people to grow crops,” she concluded. 


More students 

Another UC Berkeley student who identified himself only as “anonymous 22” said that LBNL was legally required but failed to examine all areas where the project would have both direct and indirect impacts—including global warming. 

Noting that EBI research also aimed to develop microbes to recover otherwise inaccessible oil and gas reserves, further climate impacts should be examined. He cited the recent announcement that BP planned to extract oil from the tar sands of Canada, a project one British newspaper, the Independent, headlined “‘The biggest environmental crime in history.’” 

Another student, Matthew Taylor, said reality itself refuted promises of climate improvement raised by agricultural fuel boosters. “Indonesia has gone from 17th to number three” in greenhouse gas emissions, he said, due to forest burning to clean land for palm trees grown for biofuels. 

Juliet Lamont, a UC Berkeley graduate and former lab employee who now works as an environmental consultant, said the decision to build the lab in Strawberry Canyon “was a bad idea to begin with,” one that shouldn’t be reinforced with even more new construction. 

Carole Schemmerling, a member of the Urban Creeks Council who is now forming a group called the Strawberry Creek Watershed Council, said the idea of siting the lab, “one of the least attractive industrial facilities I’ve ever seen” was “one of the worst things we could have done to the canyon.” 

She said lab scientists have ignored the serious problems posed by the site’s abundant groundwater. 

One speaker pushed the rhetoric over the top, depicting UC Berkeley as the tool of a cabal of British bankers, Freemasons and Skull and Bones members, and declaring that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been put in place by a prominent Jewish banker from London. 


Down to earth 

Janice Thomas, a neighborhood activist from Panoramic Hill and a near neighbor of the project, said the draft EIR’s focus had been “way too narrow, way too local” when the focus should have been on the project’s global environment impacts. 

Thomas asked the lab to explain why the buildings had to be grouped in what officials called the nanotechnology cluster—referring to work with microscopic-sized particles, and asked: “Do you know exactly what research you will be doing?” 

Lesley Emmington, a preservationist and former member of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, faulted the draft report for dismissing the notion raised by the commission that the canyon was eligible as a cultural landscape for entry into the National Register of Historic Places. 

“We all understand it as a special place in the whole Bay Area,” she said. 

Emmington said the fact that the same institution that proposed the project also served as the body to certify its environmental status raised serious questions: “I urge you please to tell me why you have the right to self-approve” the project. 

The public has until Feb. 1 to comment on the draft EIR. The report and other information are available at 



Berkeley environmentalist Sylvia McLaughlin, who turns 91 next week, spoke at a public hearing Monday to criticize the Helios building planned for LBNL and the research that will happen there. Photograph by Richard Brenneman.